ROUND 18: New Zealand Warriors v. Penrith Panthers (Suncorp Stadium,18/7/21, 16-30)

New Zealand hosted Penrith for a rare afternoon game at Suncorp for the first match of Sunday football, as both teams took the park with relatively new halves pairings – Roger Tuivasa-Sheck donning the five-eighth jersey for the first time in his NRL career, alongside Chad Townsend, and Matt Burton joining Tyrone May in the absence of Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai. We also had the two biggest run metre tallies of the year on the field – Brian To’o (back from the Blues) at 3287, and RTS a ways behind at 3038.

If Penrith won this match, they’d be level with Melbourne for competition points, while the Warriors were just as keen to take advantage of the post-Origin Panthers to rack up their sixth win of the year, after losing five straight. They had a couple of terrific bursts, and challenged the mountain men at key moments, thanks in part to a barnstorming game from Matt Lodge, and the surprise of getting three men off the extended bench 24 hours before kickoff – Townsend and Tohu Harris, both back from shoulder injuries, and Euan Aitken, back from iso.

Yet while the Warriors gained three men, they also lost three men, due to a horror string of injuries that almost saw Kane Evans activated as eighteenth man. Even worse, all of them left the park in the first half – Harris with an ACL, in a heartbreaking sequel to his shoulder issues; RTS with an HIA after taking Matt Burton’s hip square in the face; and Wayde Egan with a season-ending shoulder injury. With half their spine and a key second-rower missing, the Warriors were always going to struggle to take advantage of their bouts of field position.

James Fisher-Harris got the ball rolling, and To’o continued adding to his run tally on tackle two, before Burton took his first kick at five-eighth, and Reece Walsh caught it on the full. Penrith summoned a massive pack to drag DWZ five metres back at the start of the next set, while Viliame Kikau parlayed that energy back into attack on the last. Charging down Townsend’s first kick, he took it on the second bounce, and surged ahead to score untouched on the left edge, as if he was the wiliest winger on the park.

Stephen Crichton dragged the kick across the face of the uprights, but the Panthers had still posted four points before the Warriors even had four tackles. Once again, Fish and To’o started the set, Burton took the kick, and Walsh collected it on the full. It was hard to know who benefited from this repetition – it suggested a well-oiled Penrith machine, but also gave New Zealand a chance to reset the game, so long as they could get through the set here, so Townsend didn’t take any risks, booting it long and high out to the right edge.

Dylan Edwards started experimenting out on his own right edge, but once again the play pivoted back inside for a Burton kick to the left, caught this time by DWZ, who tempted a high shot from Brent Naden a second later. RTS tried to break past Tyrone May on the left, galvanising the Warriors into a rapid sweep to the right, where Walsh tried to create space for Rocco Berry as well. Penrith got the ball back, but for the first time the hosts had started to elasticise – and got their next chance when Naden made his second straight error.

The ball drop set up Marcelo Montoya to bring his men to the brink of the twenty on the left wing, before Matt Lodge plunged through up the middle, thanks to a no-look pass from Wayde Egan. Dancing over a low tackle from Yeo, he returned the favour for the Lithgow local a moment later, shifting the footy back inside for Egan to score untouched beneath the crossbar. Walsh was always going to convert from this angle, bringing his men some closure after the shock of that opening try, as they took the lead for the first time.

No surprise that Lodge took the first carry of the restart, setting up space for a pair of good runs from Addin Fonua-Blake and Tohu Harris, who took another charge up the right edge off a chaotic Jazz Tevaga offload, only to find himself facing the full brunt of Naden, who made up for his first two errors with a monster tackle here. It was only Naden’s second NRL game of the year, and while his pent-up energy had got the better of him in the opening minutes,  he was brilliant at reversing the momentum in a single play now.

Harris took so long to return to his feet, and was so ginger with what seemed to be a knee injury, that the Panthers had more than enough time to reset their line. Edwards took the bomb easily, Moses Leota wisely reined in an offload in the face of a Warriors outfit desperate to compensate for the last pause with some solid defence, To’o added more metres, and Fish popped out a daring offload to Burton, before play stopped one more time for Harris, who’d put in a valiant effort over the last few tackles, but now had to limp off the park.

Eliesa Katoa left the bench as Penrith, like New Zealand before them, waited for their last two tackles. Burton sent it left again, Walsh took it on the full again, and the game seemed to reset once more. Bizza had to stumble down to his knees to take Townsend’s next kick, giving the chase time to get there, although the Panthers didn’t lose any field position, since Katoa infringed the ruck a moment later. There was no doubt who Burton was targeting with the kicks, and this time it paid off, as a cluster of Warriors held their eyes up to shield the sun.

In doing so, they allowed the footy to bounce, paving the way for the best period of second phase play so far – and another New Zealand injury. Fish started by collecting the footy and flicking an offload back to Naden, who continued to shine with an even more mercurial no-looker back to Burton. It was like Naden was intensifying and crystallising Fish, and setting up Burton to do the same to him, which explains why RTS came in so hard and low for the tackle. It worked against him, since he copped a hip to head that nearly knocked him out cold.

The Warriors desperately needed a penalty – and they got it with an illegal strip from Fish on Fonua-Blake. Three tackles later, Lodge was back at the cusp of the twenty, in the middle of the park, and while Leota and May rallied to prevent him from cracking the red zone this time around, Townsend came up with some good game management on the last, dropping ball to boot stealthily at the last moment to thread it past Yeo and Edwards for the first dropout of the afternoon.

Yet at this very moment, while Burton was lining up the kick, Egan became the third Warrior to leave the park, with what turned out to be a season-ending shoulder injury. Lodge continued to ask questions up the middle, flicking out an offload for Walsh on play three, and then for Fonua-Blake on play four, as if channelling and cancelling out Fish and Naden’s pair of second phase efforts. He did the job, building enough momentum up the right for Walsh to assist Berry to hit the Steeden at speed and slam through the defence for four more.

After losing their hooker, five-eighth and second-rower, this was a critical rallying-point for the Warriors. Even if Walsh had to stare straight into the sun for the kick, and ended up ricocheting it off the right post, it was still remarkable that they were a converted try ahead, given the carnage they’d suffered over the last fifteen minutes. Their restart brought us into the second quarter, as Lodge cemented this as one of his best games of the year by wrestling off a couple of tacklers to pop out yet another offload, for Tevaga, in the middle third.

New Zealand spent the next few minutes gradually consolidating, and came agonisingly close to capturing the momentum for the rest of the first stanza. When Penrith started to enterprise up the left on their next set, Berry pulled down Naden before he could feed it out to To’o for the last stage of the sweep. Yeo made a ruck error midway through the next set, and Nikorima broke through the line, but couldn’t orchestrate the offload with Curran, who tripped over him in what initially looked like a rhythm-killer.

Yet Curran bounced back with one of the best chases of the game, wrapping himself around To’o to prevent him breaking the ten at the back end of Townsend’s next kick. Sensing danger, Burton opted for a long kick on tackle four, and Crichton answered Curran’s chase with a monster hit on Montoya, who was so winded by the leg contact that for a moment he looked in danger of becoming the fourth Warrior to leave the park. Yet Burton started to slip on the next set, with two bad reads of Berry, starting with dangerous contact in the middle third.

This penalty came around the same time as the restart on the previous set, galvanising New Zealand into a right edge surge that saw Burton infringe the ruck after Berry received a deft offload from Walsh. Finally, after this miniature war of attrition, the Warriors had a full set from the ten, as Townsend sent Curran through the line on the first tackle, for what would have been the pivotal try of the game if the pass hadn’t been called forward. All it took was a Montoya error for Penrith to score their next try straight off the scrum base.

After so much gradual work from the Warriors, this was exactly the try the Panthers needed to provide – clean, crisp and consummately professional. May spiralled a beautiful harbour bridge ball out to Bizza, who mirrored the arc of the assist by sailing through the air and reaching out the Steeden past Berry to score. The curvature of the assist, putdown and Steeden itself spoke to the absolute mastery of Penrith at their best, as did Crichton’s sideline conversion – a pitch-perfect strike that levelled the score, but put the Panthers miles ahead.

No surprise that the Warriors wilted in the wake of this alpha display, conceding three straight restarts a minute later – two of them from Tevaga – before Kikau brought the first forty full circle with a second try. This was a Blues-worthy play, as big Billy received the footy from Burton on the left, shaped for the wing, headed back inside, turned DWZ around, and poured over Walsh like a crashing wave, to slam down the most emphatic try of the first stanza. Crichton booted through another terrific two, and the Panthers had reclaimed their lead.

It was a full-stop on the first stanza, and felt like a full stop on the game as a whole, prompting Crichton to cap off his superb kicking game by attempting a two-point field goal in the final five seconds. Nevertheless, the Warriors were still only six behind, and started the second stanza with a decent set, including another offload from Lodge to Tevaga, and a further run from Lodge on the penultimate play. Last time New Zealand built momentum, they did it gradually and haltingly, and they settled back into that rhythm over the next few minutes.

That was partly because Penrith seemed to have deflated slightly, or perhaps grown too complacent, in the wake of their decisive end to the first stanza. Their first set back was pretty modest, only peaking with May’s best kick so far – a long-ranger that sat up at just the right point to put serious pressure on Walsh, who copped Api Koroisau’s knee in his face as he slid more than charged back into the field of play. A few tackles later, the Warriors got the first penalty of the second half, when Yeo caught Euan Aitken high with a lazy swinging arm.

Lodge continued to shine over the next passage of play, laying the platform for Fonua-Blake to charge seven metres after contact to bring New Zealand right to the line. A few plays later, the ex-Bronco didn’t even need to offload on the other side of the park, breaking away from Koroisau to make a first phase pass back to Townsend. Chad capped it all off with a terrific kick-and-chase that saw To’o, like Walsh, only just make it back into the field of play, before Tevaga and Leeson Ah Mau slammed in to force a knock-on from Crichton.

The Warriors were now in the same situation that preceded May and To’o’s combo. They’d slowly but surely built field position and had a full set in the Penrith twenty. Yet history didn’t quite repeat itself in the same way here, since while New Zealand failed to capitalise, it didn’t lead to a rapid Penrith try either. Sure, Koroisau did well to wrap himself around Fonua-Blake’s knees, and Katoa lost the footy while trying to slam over out of dummy half, in the wake of a big Bayley Sironen charge, but Capewell still lost it two out of the following scrum.

This ushered in a second enormous surge of New Zealand field position, and the biggest struggle of the night for Penrith, as Staines and Capewell conceded a pair of restarts, Staines made another error, and Crichton was pinged for holding down, before Lodge made his first mistake of the game. Seeing Lodge cough it up was a big rhythm-killer for the Warriors, given the strength he’d imparted to the team, and while Edwards made it a trilogy of restarts a set later, he compensated with precisely the daring individual play Penrith needed at this point.

Even then, this wasn’t the sublimely compressed play of May and To’o, since the Panthers had lost some of their steam in the wake of so much defence. Instead, Edwards provided his men with a confidence boost, a reassurance that they could bring it all together if they just mirrored his energy. Collecting a fourth-tackle Townsend kick in the ten, Edwards bumped off an even better chase from the ex-Shark, using his contact as a pivot to slice past Ah Mau and make it all the way to the halfway line, where he passed to Burton to continue his flow.

Burton didn’t make any metres, but played a critical middle role here, withstanding a low tackle from Walsh, and then a follow-up effort from Ah Mau, who finally arrived at the play, before popping it out for Bizza to show why he’s the run metre king of 2021. To’o broke the twenty and shifted it out for Naden, as DWZ slammed in to temporarily quell this massive surge. Yet the Panthers regathered immediately, and sent it back in field, where May took it on the bounce, and steadied the set, before Staines sent Burton straight through the line.

The Warriors held him up, but conceded a fresh set in the process, and with so much field position behind them the Panthers were always going to score – at the end of the day, that was the difference between these two outfits. After exploring the left and middle, they swept out to the right, where Aitken came in low, and Montoya on top, but neither could prevent Crichton from popping out one of the best flick passes of his career for a Staines four-pointer – good enough to eclipse his missed conversion, which kept the Panthers at 20-10.

This flick pass was really something, since Crichton used the opposing momentum of the two tacklers to shape the pass at the final second – a perfect image of Penrith’s capacity to extemporise under (relative) pressure, and a stark contrast to New Zealand’s inability to capitalise on their last three bouts of field position. Things got worse for the Warriors when Martin slammed Tevaga to ground, and they wasted their challenge in an attempt to prove that there had been an illegal strip from Crichton, who was also in on the tackle.

Yet the mountain men also didn’t capitalise as quickly as you might have expected, despite three roiling close-range plays out of the subsequent scrum. Yeo took it to the ten, dummied, and almost broke through Ah Mau and Fonua-Blake, but couldn’t quite reach out his arm to plant the footy down. May tried to parlay his charge into another bust at the line, and considered offloading, right on the ground, amidst a sea of Warriors’ boots, so close did a try seem here – surely he just needed one more player to draw on his and Yeo’s flow?

In the end, he reined in the second phase play, as Koroisau channelled all this close-range energy into a quick grubber that Fonua-Blake collected, culminating his best defensive stint of the match. As with their last try, however, the Panthers used this adrenalin as money in the bank, building their fifth four-pointer on their next foray into the right wing, when Yeo double-pumped for May, who in turn popped it across for Martin to bust through Montoya and score his third try of the season with all the heroic energy of the third game for the Blues.

May got his third assist, and Staines his second try, a couple of sets later, with a play that split the difference between the last two tries and To’o’s putdown on the other wing. Like Martin’s try, Yeo got the sweep rolling, and like To’o’s try it came off a harbour bridge ball – with a wider arc this time, forcing Staines to reach out his right palm and rein it in one-handed before slicing over untouched. Crichton missed the kick, but the sheer economy of this sweep, from Koroisau’s opening pass right on the ground, to Staines’ take in the air, was all Penrith class.

Once again, the Panthers had come up with a conversation-stopper as the siren loomed on the horizon – and looked good to score on the restart, thanks to an offside from Lodge midway through, along with a trio of superb plays from To’o, all in a single run. Not only did he collect a very low ball clean on the left edge, but he managed to stay in the field of play in the face of a cascading Warriors chase, and then pop the offload back up to Naden, who shifted it across to Burton for what might have been a try-assisting or dropout-assisting kick.

Instead, he struck it too hard, while DWZ mirrored Bizza by taking a very long and low ball from Walsh out on the right edge, and sending it back inside through a sequence of Warriors to Walsh, who brought this sequence full circle by tempting a swinging arm from Naden. Lodge was also put on report for illegal contact on Fish in backplay, but the Warriors still had the ball here –  and scored the final try of the night as the light turned golden over Suncorp, as Walsh had the last word by receiving a Curran offload and curving round behind the posts.

Walsh converted his own try to bring the Warriors to a 16-30 scoreline – not the worst result in the world, but inevitably disappointing given that they’d been playing against a depleted Penrith spine, and had failed to capitalise upon their periodic bouts of field position. They’ll need to steel themselves to take on South Sydney next week, while the mountain men will be looking forward to getting Jarome Luai back on the park when they rock up for what should be a relatively easy game against Brisbane.

About Billy Stevenson (695 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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