ROUND 16: Penrith Panthers v. Parramatta Eels (BlueBet Stadium, 2/7/21, 13-12)

The last time Penrith lost at home was against the Raiders in 2019, although they came pretty close against Parramatta on Friday night. Nathan Cleary was nursing his shoulder injury, Brian To’o, Isaah Yeo and Kurt Capewell were coming straight off Origin II, and both sides were getting reacclimatised to empty stadiums in the wake of the most recent lockdown. Charlie Staines was named at fullback, with Dylan Edwards out with a foot injury, while Brent Naden was on the wing for his first stint of 2021 with Paul Momirovski and Robert Jennings injured.

Despite those destabilising shuffles, the Panthers did have Viliame Kikau back from his hamstring injury, and he bounced back with a sequence of punishing runs up the left edge that continually promised a barnstorming try, but eventually testified to the power of Parra’s goal line defence. Similarly, To’o had only failed to make 200 run metres four times this year, and had another great night here, eventually clocking up 281, while the Panthers certainly had isolated moments when they were playing at maximum flow, despite Cleary’s absence.

The most critical of these occurred in the third quarter, just after Parra executed the fastest accumulation of field position all night, culminating with a sublime Isaiah Papali’i try. This was the kind of vision and adrenalin that wins games, but it was no match for the methodical organisation of the mountain men, who moved through a pair of clinical dropouts to score their next try, and reclaim the lead, a few minutes later. It was a testament to the power of sharp game management to outshine even the most flamboyant of consolidation sequences.

Nevertheless, this moment was the exception more than the rule, since it took Penrith the whole first forty to take the lead. With Cleary off the park, Mitch Moses really shone with the boot, especially since he now had to make a case for himself as Blues fullback in the face of Origin III. Yet even Moses couldn’t quite save the day, since his streakiness undid him in the final minutes, when he followed a botched two-point field goal by missing the penalty kick that should have won Parra the game off a Liam Martin escort seventy seconds from the siren.

Kikau took the first run of the night but the Eels did well to keep the Panthers bunched in their own end, forcing Jarome Luai to take his first kick in the forty. Penrith returned the favour on the first Parra set, with only a tough Reagan Campbell-Gillard run taking Parra over their forty before Mitch Moses booted his first kick. The Eels upped the ante on the following set, keeping the mountain men even deeper in their forty until James Fisher-Harris outdid RCG’s charge. Finally, aTom Opacic ruck infringement got them down Parramatta’s end.

The Eels now had to work it back from their own try line, and Moses had to boot it from within his own thirty, giving Penrith another shot to break the halfway line, only for Charlie Staines to knock on the high ball inside the Parramatta ten. Once again, the Eels failed to make Penrith territory, although they got a let-off when Brian To’o made a rare handling error with a fumbled play-the-ball midway through the count, defied by the slippery conditions at the base of the mountains. Parra packed the scrum, and had to make an immediate incursion here.

Dylan Brown did well with the kick, grubbering it deep into the left corner, where To’o made up for his knock-on with some confident handling, outpacing Opacic and gathering the footy into his chest to prevent any chance of an early try. Nevertheless, Parra had the first dropout of the night to continue recouping their field position, as Brown continued to lead from the halves, carring it deep into the right corner before a sudden pivot out to the left ended with an improvised Clint Gutherson grubber that Waqa Blake chased into the wing.

He didn’t look too confident rising from the grounding and the replay showed that Brent Naden had – only just – prevented him from applying enough downward pressure to nab the four points. On the other side of the Steeden, Penrith wasted no time in returning to Parra’s end of the park, thanks to a strong opening run from Apisai Koroisau, who garnered their second restart of the night, off a ruck error from Moses. It was agonising, then, when Fish followed To’o with a fumble on the ground a tackle later.

Isaiah Papali’i now mirrored Koroisau with an equally productive run, barging into the defence and winning the first penalty of the night when Koroisau himself came in high to halt his progress. Parra now had their best field position so far, arriving at the twenty with three tackles up their sleeve, before Papali’i contributed another barnstorming run to bring them to the ten. Moses started to warm up with a delayed pass for a rapid right sweep through Brown, but the Panthers came together at the end when Haze Dunster took it on the wing.

Kikau spearheaded the pack effort that dragged the young flyer over the sideline, but To’o and Burton were instrumental too – all in all, exactly the staunch Penrith effort needed to stem this sudden burst of Parramatta field position. They didn’t make much headway though, despite a few fast opening runs, as Luai sent it awkwardly off the side of the boot, at his own red zone, giving the Eels a full set in Penrith territory. Moses was barking for it out on the left edge, and for good reason, since he sent Papali’i through the line as soon as he received it.

Papali’i didn’t reach the try line, but this was still a great consolidator after his two big runs a set before – good enough to galvanise Parramatta into their most convincing shot so far, culminating with a big Blake run that only the most decisive of trysavers from Crichton could hold up on the left edge. The Panthers couldn’t have asked for a better time for Joey Lussick to infringe the ruck, getting them into the Parra twenty on the next set, thanks to a beautiful boot in field from To’o that brought this period of close-range blue and gold attack to an end.

Moses only just broke the halfway line on the next set, and while he tried to compensate with a dangerous bomb, Staines was up to the task, getting right down on the turf to take it on the full. Crichton then built into some good acceleration up the left edge, but the speed overtook Naden, who stuck a boot into touch as Maika Sivo came in for a clinical low tackle. Nathan Brown consolidated with a tough run up the middle, and Papali’i took another, albeit muted, charge up the left, paving the way for a Staines knock-on that Ryan Matterson cleaned up.

Full credit to Brown too, who made up for an average Moses kick by contesting Staines in the air to begin with; a nice piece of halves synergy that secured his men a scrum at the ten. Blake made it five metres out on tackle one, Lussick hung over the line on tackle two, and the Eels shifted right on tackle three, where Gutho made it to the line as well, and Matto actually landed a metre in goal, but without managing to reach out and get the Steeden down. Penrith had showcased the best goal line defence of the game, and reabsorbed Parra’s momentum.

The mountain men now had 11-0 tackles in the opposition twenty, but they never finished the set, as Moses Leota made it a trilogy of uncharacteristic errors, following Api and Fish with a lost ball late in the count. This was a great chance for the Eels to make good on that last period of close-range attack, especially since they were inside the twenty by tackle two, where Sivo had a a rare touch in a pretty quiet game so far, and crossed over in the same spot at the end of the set, crawling over on hands and knees off a deft chip from his halfback.

This wasn’t a straight Moses-Sivo try, however, since the Eels effectively executed a team try in spirit here, given the number of Penrith players who were unable to hold it up. It started with Blake leaping above the backline to tap the ball back with his right hand, before Gutho caught it on the bounce and shot a harbour bridge pass out to Blake. From there, Naden slammed in to wrap himself around Maika’s left leg, but caught a fend in the face, before Crichton arrived too late to make much difference, sliding into Naden and over the sideline.

Still, the mountain men weren’t done, as Staines made one of his most decisive gestures at fullback so far, careening in for a desperate last-ditch tackle that forced Sivo to pivot hard off his left boot, while he was already poised at an awkward angle right on the turf, and then jam his way over the line to secure the four points. All the moving parts of this try gave it a team try feel, and while aspects of it were awkward, the game had been a slog as a whole, meaning this was the perfect putdown to give Parra the self-belief needed to wrest order from chaos.

True to the spirit of this closely-contested match, Moses missed the conversion, a worrying sign given how streaky he can be with the kicks. Still, the Eels got another chance soon enough, with a scrum off an Isaah Yeo error, although they couldn’t reach the twenty this time around, while Staines was up to Brown’s bomb, leaping a metre off the turf to take it on the full. Liam Martin came close to an offload on the penultimate play, but in the end the Panthers weren’t able to do much more with this set than Parramatta had on the last.

From a distance, you might have thought we were returning to the field position arm wrestle of the first ten minutes when Moses booted his next one at the halfway line. But he did it four tackles in, as if to reassure his men that his game management would carry the day here, while giving them some much-needed breathing-space – especially the big boppers, who were dominating the VB Hard Earned Index, with RCG on top at 50, Papali’i at 45, Nathan Brown at 39, and Fish the only Panther on the tally with 31 points to his name thus far.

In other words, the game was ripe for a Parra consolidator, and for a brief moment Opacic seemed to have provided it. Reaching out his right arm to rein in a Crichton ball, he had open space all the way to the line, and probably would have scored an intercept try if he hadn’t followed Api, Fish and Leota with a fumble at the worst possible moment. Yet the Panthers didn’t really capitalise on this shift in momentum either, decelerating into a Naden error and depending on a second Lussick ruck infringement to finally build into their opening try.

Naden made up for his error with aplomb now, carving up the right sideline, and staying in touch this time, to lay the platform for a brutal assault inside the red zone. Only the best trysaver of the night from Brown prevented Kikau crossing over on the left edge, but big Billy had still injected enough energy for Scott Sorensen to follow in his wake, before Koroisau garnered his second restart of the night, and a third ruck error from Lussick. All of a sudden, Penrith had found the congealment they’d been looking for, so a try seemed inevitable here.

Sure enough, Tyrone May now scored the perfect confidence-builder on the right edge, proving Penrith could survive without Nathan Cleary, at least for now. Receiving a wide ball from Sorensen at dummy half, he bumped off Papali’i and rolled through Gutherson, disposing of both the most plosive Parramatta player and their captain to set up a stellar conversion from Crichton, who sent it straight down the middle to put the mountain men six ahead as they headed to the sheds, despite a Naden linebreak ninety seconds from the siren.

With this break, Naden officially completed his comeback from that error at the thirtieth minute, but in the end it galvanised the Eels into their own hitback as soon as they returned to the park. So far in 2021, 80% of Moses’ assists had come off bombs, and this was no exception, as Mitch made up for his missed conversion at the end of the first set, which started with an exceptionally strong charge from Lussick out of dummy half. Moses summoned a terrific bounce, Papali’i took it on the chest, and barged right to the crossbar.

All night, Papali’i had been raring for precisely this kind of try, while Staines had his lowest moment at fullback now, allowing the ball to bounce before reaching both hands above his head to find Papali’i was already hovering above him. Even better, Papali’i had made first contact with the footy, but had pulled his arms right back so that it only curled off his chest. Between the vision of Moses’ boot and the extemporised brilliance of Papali’i’s putdown, the Eels felt more than a few points ahead when Mitch booted through the two from in front.

On top of all that, this had been a hard-fought game up the middle third of the park, so seeing Papali’i carve his way beneath the crossbar was a critical motivator for Parra – and for Moses, who was now well on top for try assists by kick in 2021 (17) compared to Luke Brooks at 11, and Scott Drinkwater, Nathan Cleary and Daly Cherry-Evans all on 9 apiece. In fact, Moses was averaging more than one assist a game off the boot, and settled into a new elasticity on the restart, showing it languorously late in the count before bombing another big one on the last.

Staines had to get right down on the ground to take it, but take it he did, as Penrith started the long journey back from this burst of Parramatta adrenalin, the biggest for either side all night. It was a testament to the Panthers’ resolve that the Eels’ best try would also be their last, although neither side could know this yet, as Parra withstood a couple of big defensive plays early in their next set, a Shaun Lane tumble on the fourth, and a Kikau chargedown on Brown’s kick on the last, to get themselves a fresh set halfway down the park.

Four tackles later, Matterson almost broke through the line, Burton got a touch, and the Eels went from a fresh set in the opposition half to a fresh set in the twenty, in the the fastest accumulation of field position for either side all night. Their last try had been spectacular enough, so with another try here, on the back of all this acceleration, they probably would have carried the night, since only a full-strength Penrith outfit could have bounced back from such a sudden shift in momentum.

Not only did it look like they might just nab that try at the end of the set, but for a moment it seemed like Sivo had made it a double with one of the best putdowns of his career. Leaping over Naden on the wing, he floated in air with the preternatural poise he’s made his own, hanging for an age before reaching out the Steeden through a follow-up effort from Staines for what would have been the one-handed putdown of the season if he hadn’t fumbled it at the last. Even then, this was good enough to keep Parra’s flow and adrenalin alive.

To hit back, it wasn’t enough for the Panthers to attempt a similarly flamboyant play – they needed a slow, clinical, methodical consolidation period. Crichton stepped up in Cleary’s absence with a good conservative kick at the end of the next set, and his vision steadied the mountain men into two successive dropouts, the second of which paid dividends. Again, Crichton was the man with the plan, taking an awkward low ball from May, rotating through a legs tackle from Opacic, and sizing up the park in an instant before offloading to Koroisau.

Api now mirrored and revised Papali’i’s run, making the most of a shocking Lane miss to head for the posts and veer out beside the right at the last instant. While Papali’i’s putdown had been sublime, this generated a different kind of awe, since it was proof positive that the Panthers could methodically hit back against even the most flamboyant play. Parra had brought everything in their arsenal to take the lead again, but Penrith had only taken a couple of minutes of clinical game management to throw cold water on all that blue and gold energy.

This was the Penrith we’ve grown used to in 2021, when Cleary has been at the helm, so it was a reassuring moment for a Panthers outfit that had taken an unusually long time to bounce back in the first forty. That said, they didn’t maintain that discipline for too long, since a Matterson error quickly gave way to a cascade of mistakes that culminated with a pair of Spencer Leniu ball strips that tempted Penrith into only their third unsuccessful challenge of the season. Parra took the two, and Moses booted through their last points of the match.

It didn’t necessarily feel that way at the time, however, since with a scoreline of 12-12, and a sudden Penrith slump, it felt like the blue and gold might return to that stunning burst of adrenalin at any moment. Sensing danger, the Panthers subbed on Mitch Kenny, and reconsolidated as the Eels now descended into an error-laden sequence, despite a superb Moses bomb that saw the Steeden sail all the way from his own twenty to the Penrith red zone, where Staines really had to accelerate to build the mountain men any decent position.

Yet despite Moses’ vision with the boot, the Panthers got a full set in the Parra forty off a ruck error from Nathan Brown, and then again from Matterson at the twenty. Sorensen was at the ten a tackle later, Leniu started to work his way back from those two errors by driving it deep on the right, and Opacic was pinged for a second error on the other side of the park, where he got too eager upon finding himself confronted with Burton on the sideline. Just like that, the Panthers had mirrored and exceeded Parra’s acceleration in the buildup to Papali’i’s try.

One more advance in field position and they probably would have scored here, so it was agonising when Kurt Capewell put down an awry pass from Staines – and Naden gave away a penalty a second later in an effort to crowd Parra out of the play. If Penrith had found their rhythm in the wake of Papali’i’s crossover, then they’d lost it at an equally critical moment now, leaving the game open for another Parramatta acceleration, only for Lane to put the ball down, just after a Martin ruck error, as Kenny and Koroisau sandwiched him to ground.

By this stage, then, neither team could be guaranteed to consolidate consistently, giving the impression that only a big individual play could produce a fifth try, and putting even more pressure on Moses to make the most of Cleary’s absence to showcase the full power of his boot. He sent it long again on the next set, reaching Staines at the ten, as three Panthers now tried to summon the play that was needed – Kenny with a strong run down the middle, Crichton with a huge dummy on the following tackle, and Kikau with an offload on the turf.

None of them paid dividends, forcing Fish to make the critical play in defence, with a rollicking tackle that slammed the footy clean out of Dunster’s hands. Penrith now had a full set in the twenty, but despite big runs from Kikau and Sorensen on the left they couldn’t break through, while Moses was staunch in preventing Crichton making the most of a right swing midway through the count. Everything reached peak volatility on the last, when May opted to run the ball and lost it backwards, ushering in a scrambling bid for possession out to the left edge.

Martin scooped it up and sent it out to Fish, who executed another big pass back to Luai – so quick that the five-eighth was unable to contain it, meaning Opacic came up with it on the turf. In the interim, though, the ex-Cowboy had reached out an arm and got a touch as the Steeden moved between Fish and Luai, meaning that the Eels also got an unsuccessful challenge, although you had to wonder why they sent it upstairs in the first place, since this all looked cut-and-dry in real time – no surprise that Penrith ened up with a scrum at the ten.

This was the critical tipping-point of the game, the moment when the mountain men had to score or else resign themselves to a nail-biting finish. Kikau took another stunning run up the left edge, and actually palmed Gutho to ground, but once again the blue and gold wall stayed strong, while the mountain men seemed to have run out of options, as Luai resorted to just giving Kikau a second shot on the left. Cleary’s organisation never felt more lacking, and even Kikau seemed surprised by Luai’s play, knocking on the footy before he could take a real run.

Bizza did well to bring back some energy at the start of their next set, bumping off a couple of players and making ten metres more than he should, before Fish followed with a few post-contacts and a rapid play-the-ball to force a ruck error from RCG. Kikau had his closest game at the end of this set, and Gutho his toughest tackle of the night, absorbing the full weight of Billy’s frame long enough for a few other defenders to get in on the action, and barking out orders to his men to begin the next set, high on having kept the match alive once more.

By this stage, Papali’i was well ahead of the rest of the VB crew, sitting on 103 to Matto’s 73, while the Eels couldn’t have asked for a better time for Junior Paulo to join the fray. With eight minutes on the clock, it looked like we might be in for a second successive golden point match after Warriors-Dragons had almost taken it to the very final siren just before. No Panther on the park had kicked a field goal, while Cleary had booted eight, and Moses also had eight under his belt, with Gutho sitting on just one one-pointer at this point in his career.

Burton was the first to aim for the uprights, but missed, as did Moses, who went for a two-point field goal on the following set. Personifying the dogged determination of the mountain men as a whole, Burton just slotted it again next time he got in position, and this time he nailed the angle, bringing his men to a one-point lead after Moses had his most agonising effort with the boot in some time – a missed penalty kick after a Martin escorts seventy seconds out from the end, an appropriate ending to such a closely-contested kicking game.

The Panthers had proved that they could carry the day without Cleary on the park, although there were enough contingencies and close calls here to require some general consolidation before they take on the Warriors after the bye. On the other side of the Steeden, this was one of the most frustrating games of Parra’s season, despite (or because of) some of their best passages of acceleration this year, so they’ll be looking for a big win over the Titans for the first match of Round 18 too.

About Billy Stevenson (692 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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