ROUND 19: Penrith Panthers v. Brisbane Broncos (Suncorp Stadium, 24/7/21, 18-12)

The Broncos may have been playing at Suncorp, but it was a Penrith home game when they rocked up for another crowd-free fixture on Saturday night. By the time it was finished, Brisbane had thoroughly reclaimed this as their cauldron, giving the mountain men one of their biggest scares of the year to celebrate Alex Glenn’s milestone as fourth-most capped Bronco. For the first time in months, Brisbane kept the opposition to single digits at halftime, and very nearly upstaged their upset win over the Roosters at the SCG in May.

On the other side of the Steeden, the Panthers were missing both Nathan Cleary and Apisai Koroisau, and struggled to find their signature syngery for long periods of the game. Luckily, Jarome Luai was back on the field, and with 14 games, wins, assists and forced dropouts in 2021 – along with wins in 31/32 of his last games – you’d think he would have been the key playmaker here, and a good foil for Tyrone May, who was still working in the halves following a particularly strong game against New Zealand the week before.

But Luai took a while to warm up, only making three runs in the first forty, leaving space for Brisbane to consolidate into one of their most courageous games of the year. They copped five minutes of defence to start the night, then lost Flegler to the bin, and yet seemed to thrive on adversity, racking up 70% of field position and almost scoring the first try, with a man down. From there, they kept Penrith to a penalty kick and two-point field goal by halftime, and clinically contained the second stanza flow of Panthers points by the final siren.

On top of all that, they only got two tackles into their first set, as James Fisher-Harris summoned a massive pack to force a Tom Flegler knock-on, giving Penrith a full six inside the Brisbane twenty. Fish, in turn, took the second tackle of this set, as if determined to give his all before he break9ng bubble next week, while May ended with a deep grubber that Jamayne Isaako had to scoop up and take into touch with Luai on his back. The Broncos had defended well here, and had time to reset their line with a big Tesi Niu kick.

The Panthers spent the first part of the dropout on the left, where Matt Burton got his first touch, and Fish took another run, before getting another set on the right, thanks to a Corey Oates touch – and then another, meaning Brisbane might just come away with the advantage here if they could dig in, hold their line, and withstand the cascade of Penrith position. Sure enough, when Burton ended the last left sweep with a flamboyant flick offload that sailed past To’o and over the sideline, the Broncos had made it clear they wouldn’t be a walkover.

They wasted no time in completing their first set, five minutes in, as Payne Haas brought them to the halfway line, and and Tyson Gamble booted it from their forty. Luai decided to kick before the last, but even then Isaako only brought it five metres back into the field of play, so perfectly did the Steeden sit up. Once again, Gamble had to boot it from the forty, and this time he added more height to the bomb, giving his men time to organise the chase, and start to work their way back from this early deficit in field position.

Luai might have kicked on the fourth on the last set, but the Panthers got their next restart on tackle four, off a Flegler ruck error, and arrived at the Brisbane ten halfway through the set. Flegler had now made the two critical mistakes of the night, and took out his frustration with an egregious high shot just as Isaah Yeo was about to cross. He was sent to the bin for his troubles, and was arguably lucky not to get a send-off, while Penrith made the curious decision to take the two – an early sign of respect for this Broncos defence.

Nevertheless, Brisbane had only survived with thirteen men on the park, and would have conceded a try if not for Flegler’s error, so they had to summon all their strength to endure the next ten minutes, which Fish started with his best charge so far – big enough to bring Jordan Riki and four other Broncos in to (only just) curb the post-contact metres. Niu had his first great take in the air at the end of the set, Haas made his first solid charge after contact, and Jake Turpin had a crack at the kick, sending it low and hard for a little bit more position.

Strangely, Penrith continued to play it conservative on the next set, as Luai kicked again before the last, while word came down that Yeo wouldn’t be returning from the sheds. That hesitation opened up space for Brisbane’s first accumulation of field position, with twelve men on the park, as Capewell knocked down a Croft kick to give the “visitors” their first full set in the Penrith half, before Niu slid the best grubber of the game so far straight past Luai, forcing To’o to clean it up on the dead ball line.

This was the first time when you really sensed how close this game would be, since the Broncos now got another bout of position, following solid post-contact metres from Glenn on the left, with a right sweep that ended with Burton deliberately putting himself offside. Where the Panthers had chosen to take the two with twelve in the opposition, the Broncos took another charge at the line with a man down, which spoke volumes about their courage against the best team in the comp.

In one final reversal of rhythm, Croft followed Luai by kicking on the fourth, before Luai almost became the main casualty of the first try of the game. Dylan Edwards wasn’t prepared for the early kick, and could only deflect it beside the left post, while Luai and Staggs both lunged on it next to the right. For a brief beat it looked like Brisbane might have achieved the unthinkable here, and scored the first try against Penrith with a man down, but the replay showed that both Edwards and Staggs had knocked on.

Still, the Broncos had enjoyed 68% of possession since Flegler hit the bin, and had a scrum feed from the ten. Croft got a restart on play one, off a ruck error from May, so it was agonising when Gamble flicked it forward on the next tackle, gifting Penrith a let-off – not that you would have thought the Panthers would have needed it at this point in the game. With Glenn peeling slow one tackle later, the momentum had shifted back towards the mountain men – ironically, at the very moment that Flegler returned to the field.

Fish got them rolling again with a late offload to Mitch Kenny, while Gamble echoed Flegler by taking out his frustration with a high shot on Viliame Kikau. It was only bad enough for a penalty, and this time the Panthers continued their assault on the line, as Liam Martin drove the Steeden all the way to the chalk on the left edge, only for Croft to intercept Kenny’s long ball from dummy half all the way out on the right. Niu had the right instinct to enterprise with an early right sweep, but Gamble let them down, with a lazy forward ball out to Staggs.

Kikau and To’o copped some friendly fire in the midst of converging on Staggs, and Kikau actually left the field for an HIA – not the man you’d have expected to come off worse for wear here – bringing Spencer Leniu on earlier than expected. What was meant to be a warm-up for the big dance against the Storm next week was becoming a bit of a challenge for Penrith – or at least not the landslide you might have expected from this particular clash. The nadir came when Fish, the key motivator so far, had to take the tackle at the end of the next set.

Seeing Fish end the set with a whimper, when he’d spent so much of the night starting with a bang, galvanised the Broncos into one of their most efficient sets so far, especially since the big no. 10 now came off the park for his first bench. Yet his end to the last set looked positively professional compared to the next one, when Leniu offloaded straight into Edwards’ head on tackle three. Both teams played hot potato for a few seconds, before Penrith got a Niu knock-on, and settled into a miniature reprise of their opening dominance.

They spent the whole set within the twenty, before Luai ended with a beautiful kick – just the boot you’d want in Cleary’s absence – that Martin only just pummelled into touch before the chase got there. Two tackles into the dropout, the Panthers relaxed into the best sweep of the game, moving it silkily across the park for what looked like a certain try for Charlie Staines – until the replay showed that Farnworth had done enough in the cover, forcing the young winger to bring a knee down on the sideline before he reached out to ground the Steeden.

Slowly but surely, Brisbane were consolidating, as a subliminal shift in mood started to emerge. Little by little, it felt like we were watching a game of equals, or two teams close together on the ladder, as the Broncos started to lose any sense of being underdogs, playing like they were every bit as good as Penrith. The key set started with Isaako making silky headway through a Capewell tackle, and Riki following with more metres in his wake – both tough runs that looked easy – before May booted through one of his weakest kicks so far.

That’s not say Penrith were playing poorly, exactly, but that the Broncos had sunk into a new calm, and had reclaimed Suncorp as their home ground. The mountain men had 47 tackles inside Brisbane’s half, and 23 in the twenty, without a try – without even a linebreak – to show for it. When Kenny made a forward pass out of dummy half, Brisbane relaxed into one of their most methodical sets so far, moving languorously towards the left edge, where Corey Paix’s first instinct to run the footy was sound, but not his subsequent last-ditch chip.

Still, Croft recovered with a beautiful grubber – perhaps the best so far – a set later, leaving Edwards no option but to bump it into touch. Burton booted it all the way back to the Brisbane thirty, and yet the Broncos were in the same methodical groove, which Haas compounded with crunching contact on Kenny on tackle two. Croft ended with another gorgeous grubber to the right edge, where Burton brought it back into the play of play, only for Luai to concede an escort. After thirty-five minutes of football, the Broncos finally felt like the better team.

No surprise, then, that they chose to tap and go, swinging it from side to side, all the while inside the ten, until Gamble fumbled the footy on the penultimate play. One more Croft grubber might have done the trick here, so this was an agonising moment for Brisbane, even if a single error couldn’t undo what they’d achieved over the first stanza. Meanwhile, if Penrith couldn’t score a try before the stanza, they still had to end with something flamboyant – and Edwards provided it with a two-point field goal one second out from the halftime siren.

There was no doubt that Edwards was trying to channel Adam Reynolds’ momentous field goal against the Broncos – the first in the NRL, also booted on the brink of half time. Yet the Bunnies had been leading 16-6, whereas the fact of the field goal in this game spoke to how effectively the Broncos had quelled Penrith in the opening stanza. After all, the Panthers had missed 23 tackles in the first forty, one shy of their game average for the season, while Luai had only made three runs, and needed to work harder to conjure Cleary in the back forty.

Martin got the second stanza rolling with a Fish-like run into a wall of Brisbane players, and both teams rolled up and down the park. The first big play was a terrific take from Niu, who stole the footy from Burton in the air, preventing what would have been a certain try in the corner. Still, Penrith got the next advantage, when Capewell copped a high shot from Turpin midway through the count, and then the first try of the night, on play two, when the halves finally synced for a clinical left sweep that Kikau capped off with a short assist for To’o.

It had taken the mountain men fifteen minutes to crack the Brisbane defence, but when it came, the try looked as easy as you’d expect. The question was whether they’d be able to belatedly dominate the park, or whether the Broncos would regather and turn this try into an anomaly. Stephen Crichton missed the kick, keeping the Panthers at eight, but the four points were galvanising enough for now, fusing the silky handling of the halves with Kikau at his brutal best – tough enough to absorb a regulation hit from Staggs and a high shot from Isaako. 

Sure enough, a set later, the Panthers finally fired on all cylinders, making up for their lack of linebreaks in the first forty by busting through twice here. To’o started with the best single run of his career to date, collecting the footy from Luai and then fending off Staggs, eluding a follow-up ankle tap from Staggs, tumbling to ground beneath a Gamble tackle, then rising from the tackle, and finally drawing in Staggs for a third time, who required Keenan Palasia’s assistance to bring him to ground. Even then, Bizza made a few more post-contact metres.

With such a prodigious run behind him, Staines took the sensible option, settling the play on the second tackle, and reaping the rewards two plays later, when he got his try after all. In the interim, Luai set up Kikau to add to his post-contacts with a charge into the ten, and Scott Sorensen continued a barnstorming night off the bench by tiring out the defence on the left. Finally, May shifted it right to Crichton, who bumped off Oates, and rotated a full 360-degrees without so much as a glance to the wing, before flicking out the best no-looker of the year.

All Staines had to do was take it and score, as the Panthers followed Crichton’s sublime circle by coming full circle themselves, answering their botched try of the first stanza with the best try of the second. Burton now took over kicking duties, and missed it as well, but there was no doubt that Penrith had the upper hand here, putting the onus back on Brisbane to find their flow. Haas did well a set later with a big bust up the middle, but Edwards brought him down with an ankle tap, as Crichton absorbed the rest of the charge.

That said, the Panthers had their most precarious moment of the second stanza a set later, when May sent the footy left to Luai, who offloaded out to the wing with Croft wrapped around his waist. For a brief beat, this looked set to fuse the best elements of the last two Penrith tries – the silky halves combo that set up To’o on the right wing, and the no-looker that set up Staines on the right. However, on the very cusp of that consolidation point, Oates got a chance to absorb all this momentum as Brisbane’s own when Luai’s pass hit the turf.

At the very least, Oates should have dived on it here; at the very most, he might have scored an intercept try. Instead, Edwards got the best of him, nudging his way around the footy, and toeing it out to the right wing, where Crichton scooped it up in his right hand, and twisted through Glenn to score. While the last Penrith try was more spectacular, this was more emphatic, since they’d delivered a double whammy, invoking their best two moments of the game, only to falter, and then wrest order out of chaos to showcase their improv skills instead.

Nothing exudes confidence like improv – or leaks confidence from the other team, since Burton’s first conversion wasn’t enough to explain Croft’s most self-doubting moment of the 2021 season. Breaking through the line at the ten, Brodie bumped off a couple of tacklers, and slammed hard enough into Capewell and Edwards to give himself space to reach out and score – only to second-guess himself with a forward pass, in goal, back to Kennedy.

With that kind of deflation, you’d expect the Panthers to put on a clinic during the final quarter, but this dispiriting display eventually worked to the Broncos’ advantage in the same way as the opening cascade of field position and Flegler’s stint in the bin – it galvanised them into preventing Penrith from scoring another point, while putting down two converted tries of their own. They got their next shot off an over-enterprising play from Kikau, who tapped on a Croft kick before charging down Isaako to knock it out of his grasp on the sideline.

Isaako was now pumped into rivalling To’o’s spectacular run, in a more compressed way, but with arguably an even greater final set piece. He started on the same sideline where Kikau knocked the footy free, bumping off Brent Naden, shrugging past To’o, leaping over a Burton ankle tap, and then saving the best for fourth. Sensing only a massive effort would halt Isaako’s flow, Martin leaped aloft with the arc of a diver, bringing him to ground for what seemed like the final word, especially when Moses Leota surged in to help clean up the play.

Yet Isaako rose again, dancing over a last-ditch ankle tap from Leota, and twisting around Burton too, before the future Bulldog came in, with Edwards, for the tackle that finally brought him to ground, five metres out from the line. Burton had played the same role in this run that Staggs played for To’o, summoning a hat trick of hits before he finally caught his quarry on the third. But the Broncos didn’t get a chance to build on Isaako’s run as the Panthers had on To’o’s, since play now paused for Edwards to get some head attention.

This was a pretty questionable decision at such a momentum pivot, especially since Edwards rejoined the line without any hint of an HIA. It felt apt, then, when he lost the footy at the back end of a Croft kick on the other side of the park – and even more apt when Brisbane got their first try, the try that should have followed Isaako’s run, on the next set. Kobe Hetherington was the man, receiving the ball five out, right where Isaako played it, and targeting Edwards, in particular, as he slammed through a Penrith wall to score under the bar.

Isaako wasted no time booting through the two, bringing his sublime run full circle, while the Broncos got their next chance as soon as Penrith survived the restart, when Haas and Kennedy pulled back from the tackle just in time for Bullemor to steal the footy from Naden. The Broncos now settled back into that calm they’d perfected in the second quarter, as Haas took a steadying run midway through the set that was still strong enough to prevent him being brought to ground, and Kennedy followed with a serene short-range offload to Bullemor.

All that made it more painful when Edwards fielded the same Croft kick, in the same part of the park, that came after his pause in play – but pulled it off this time, maintaining possession and bumping a metre back over the try line to avoid any chance of a dropout. Once again, though, this just motivated Brisbane, as Hetherington glimpsed a second break midway through the next set, and Croft regathered with a superb grubber to the other wing, where Naden had no choice but to bump it into touch with Staggs storming up behind him.

Burton booted through another extra-long dropout, sending it 58 metres on the full, and yet the set barely seemed to have begun when Bullemor received the footy at the ten, careened off Fish and Kennedy, and then disposed of Edwards one last time for good measure, before following in Hetherington’s footsteps with a slamdown under the crossbar. Both of Brisbane’s tries had come off the big men, reflecting their staunch courage at this late stage in the game, and both had set up Isaako for easy conversions.

By this stage, Penrith had missed 55 tackles only three behind the record for 2021 – the Roosters, at 58, against Gold Coast, in the Round 14 nail-biter. One more big play and the Broncos might have nabbed the upset of the season here – an even bigger victory than their upset win over the Chooks at the SCG. Yet despite an overlong kick from Luai, and seven tackles for Brisbane, and a great Broncos night overall, Penrith stayed strong, jumping back into first place on the ladder as they prepare for the big one against Melbourne next week.

About Billy Stevenson (750 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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