ROUND 21: Sydney Roosters v. Penrith Panthers (Suncorp Stadium, 7/8/21, 14-20)

Kicking was the magic ingredient for Saturday night’s clash between the Roosters and Panthers, with both teams putting down three tries apiece, but Matt Burton’s boot making it all the difference. Burton wasn’t just great with the two-pointers either, since he stepped up, and filled in for Nathan Cleary, with a vision and dexterity that made this arguably his best ever game in the Penrith jersey. It all culminated with a pair of sublime runs in the second half that set up the match-winning try, allowing Penrith to make it four straight over Sydney, and Burton to bookend Penrith’s night after scoring the opening try.

The Panthers rallied a strong pack to drag Siosiua Taukeiaho back a few metres on the first carry, and while he took the footy again on the third, he didn’t make much more headway, meaning Drew Hutchison was forced to take the opening kick in his own forty. Charlie Staines brought the ball back, and Viliame Kikau made the first decent metres after contact, before Matt Burton started a stellar night with a floating bomb that Joey Manu had to wait an age to collect on the left wing, with Kikau barging into him to almost drag him back over the chalk.

James Tedesco showcased his first footwork of the night, three plays later, in an effort to build more Sydney City field position, but once again they didn’t get into Penrith’s end of the park, as Hutchison kicked from much the same location. Meanwhile, Kurt Capewell followed Kikau’s charge with the first glimpse of a linebreak, clearing up space for Isaah Yeo with a quick play-the-ball. The Roosters needed a good individual effort to steady the ship, and Sam Walker provided it, coming in for a David-on-Goliath effort that unsettled the remainder of the set.

By the time Burton offloaded to Taylan May on the wing, the Chooks had their defensive line in order, and for the first time they kept Penrith down their own end on the following set. The mountain men bounced back quickly, as Jarome Luai spearheaded a sterling pack to drag Daniel Tupou a good ten metres – not directly backwards, but diagonally across field – but Capewell got too enthusiastic a tackle later, lifting Nat Butcher marginally above the horizontal for what should have been a penalty at most but instead saw him put on report.

This was a big boon in a game where both teams had struggled for decent field position, especially when the Roosters got a restart with an offside from Liam Martin. Channelling his superb game at fullback a few weeks ago, Manu took it up the middle, busting through the line and gifting his men a full set within the Penrith ten, while also anchoring their first dangerous sweep to the left wing. Adam Keighran found himself with no wiggle room in the corner, but offloaded to Teddy, who shifted it back inside just as quickly, via Angus Crichton.

They stayed around the middle of the park long enough for Isaac Liu to hit a Sam Verrills ball at speed, and then shifted back to the left, where the Panthers got a let-off with a Verrills fumble. Kikau bumped into Victor Radley on tackle one, and elasticised the play by risking an offload out to Burton on the wing. It paid off, as his five-eighth took it at the twenty, accelerated towards the sideline, and outpaced an attempted ankle tap from Sam Walker, before pivoting inside, off the left boot, at the very moment Teddy came in to clean him up.

By the time he surged over the halfway line, then, it was clear sailing all the way to the try line – May’s support run was a pure formality. Cleary’s return might have been delayed, but Burton was leading superbly from the halves, effectively disposing of the Sydney City spine to become Penrith’s second 2021 tryscorer after Staines as he crashed down the Steeden. He also added the extras, bringing the mountain men to six on the board with ten minutes gone.

The Roosters survived the restart, and while Manu couldn’t get an offload away on their next set, May had his first wobbly stint under the high ball, spilling a Hutchison kick backwards before slipping on the Suncorp surface as he tried to secure it. Penrith maintained possession, but the clumsiness had a ripple effect when Yeo failed to collect an awkward Koroisau pass two tackles later. The Chooks now had the  scrum feed, and their second bout of augmented field positon, so it was deflating when Hutchison flicked it forward to Taukeiaho on play two.

Unlike Sydney City, Penrith managed to complete out of the subsequent scrum, but they didn’t do anything fancy here, since Capewell failed to make the most of an unmarked May on the last, instead ricocheting off Sitili Tupouniua and into a Butcher tackle. Both teams needed a kick to reset the game, or a good contest under the kick, and the Roosters delivered with both – a deft chip from Hutchison, a good catch and pass from Manu, and finally a Butcher grubber that Staines was forced to bump into touch for the first dropout of the night.

Once again, Tedesco and Walker failed to coordinate, this time on their left edge, where Teddy only just took a mistimed pass from his halfback on the bounce. Once again, too, Manu took on leadership duties, paving the way for the next try with a second mad charge up the middle, where he muscled himself into Kikau, Koroisau and Martin, carrying them a metre or two for good measure before feeding a rapid play-the-ball to Verrills right on the Penrith line.

Verrills responded in kind, making up for his dropped ball with a superb cut-out pass from dummy half. Radley hit it at speed, eluding Moses Leota to crash over beneath the crossbar for his first try of the season, levelling the score once Keighran booted it through from right in front. This culminated a spotty few weeks for the Panthers’ defence, although they got through the restart without conceding any more Sydney City points, while Burton continued to lead in Cleary’s absence with a Clearyesque bomb that soared higher than any other so far.

Verrills may have set up the last Sydney try, but he botched the next set with the worst dummy half pass of the year, effectively rolling it along the ground to Keighran, but with just enough of a bounce to make it impossible to contain. At the end of the next set, the Panthers finally glimpsed a try off a kick – a Luai chip to the left edge, where Kikau and Tupouniua competed for it, before Scott Sorensen tucked it under his arm and dove through the mass of bodies on the line. This was a complex sequence, and the Panthers decided to send it upstairs.

Their immediate motivation was to prove that Tupouniua, rather than Kikau, had knocked on before Sorensen took possession. Yet the replay showed that Manu had leaped above both players to knock it back to Sitili, while Kikau didn’t seem to get a hand to it at all. In an even more bizarre twist, though, the Bunker noted that Walker had made an escorts penalty as the footy was still in the air, begging the question of why the Challenge was continuing at all. In any case, Penrith had the penalty, and Burton booted through the two to make it eight all up.

This was the first in a series of kicks that would end up giving Penrith a converted try win, despite the fact that both teams scored three actual tries apiece. Sorensen continued his charge at the line by taking the first tackle of the next set, paving the way for a series of big carries up the middle that saw Crichton emerge from the defensive line with blood pouring down his cheek off a head clash with Leota. Play paused as he got it bandaged, and he hit back with a crusher tackle that gave Penrith a chance to dig deep into the Roosters’ red zone.

Luai ended with a bomb to the right edge, where Paul Momirovski got both hands on the Steeden, and would have scored it he’d just managed to collect it and crash to ground. But the Sydney chase was too much for him, while Sydney as a whole absorbed some of the dynamism of this last Penrith set, starting with a more characteristic dash from Verrills. By the end of the count, Walker and Teddy were syncing seamlessly for the first time, and drawing on Manu’s energy – starting with Teddy taking an offload from his no. 4, forty out.

From there, he shifted it out to Walker, who sent it on for Radley to dance over a Leota ankle tap, and rise from a Koroisau tackle for a rapid play-the-ball that Walker collected immediately and then grubbered deep in goal. Teddy read the play beautifully, starting his chase as soon as Walker got a hand to the footy, and arriving just in time to bump May into touch for another dropout. This was the halfback-fullback energy Sydney had been searching for all night, and the two men continued with another linkup at the ten on the fourth tackle.

Nevertheless, the team as a while couldn’t quite congeal around this newfound synergy in the spine, as Tupou put down a Walker chip, Butcher stripped the footy a few plays later, and tensions flared between Tago and then Koroisau and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves in the middle of the park – a pair of David-and-Goliath efforts that felt like comic relief more than anything else, especially given the ripple effect as other players were skittled and somersaulted away.

Teddy and Yeo were still issued a formal warning, though, while Butcher’s penalty had given the mountain men significant field position, which intensified further with a pair of restarts – first from Butcher himself, for a ruck error, and then when Radley was called offside. The Panthers had momentum, and JWH tried to thwart it, but he may have been too amped up from the midfield fracas, since he was pinged and binned for a professional foul on Sorensen.

With such a rapid acceleration of field position, the Panthers had to score here or else concede the momentum back to the Tricolours. Just as the set started to come apart, two tackles in, Yeo activated the backline brilliantly, showing it a few times before silkily sending it out to Edwards, who responded with a perfectly timed assist for Momirovski. The ex-Tiger was sufficiently outside Tupou to bang him off on the chalk, while pivoting through a Keighran legs tackle to slam the Steeden down without even needing to shape for Staines on the wing.

This was the closest putdown of the night, since Tupou and Keighran almost did the trick, and with a slightly shorter wingspan Momirovski wouldn’t have grazed the paint. Still, the try was approved, Burton added another conversion, and then extended his men beyond a converted try lead by booting through a penalty kick right on half time, to culminate a error-laden period from the Roosters – a mistake from Teddy, a high hit for Butcher, and an early tackle for Tupouniua – in the second of the kicks that would end up securing the mountain men’s win.

The Chooks did well to contain two big plays on the opening set – first, on the left edge, where Burton glimpsed space and shifted it across to Tago, only for Crichton to slam in and shut it down, and then in front of the posts, where Keighran cleaned up Luai’s first bomb back. Yeo planted a hand in the ruck a few plays later, while Egan Butcher and Hutchison consolidated with a pair of big carries. Both men stood in the tackle for about five seconds, before Teddy extemporised with a superb left-boot chip on play three that Momirovski grounded in goal. 

The Panthers clamoured for a dropped ball from Nat Butcher on the first carry, but they didn’t get any joy, while JWH barnstormed his way back from the bin with strong runs on the second and fourth plays. Egan butchered the pass on the last, sailing it way over and behind Hutchison, who reached out both hands in vain to collect it, and yet this was nearly a miracle try, as Crichton came dangerously close to scooping it with open space all the way to the line.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man, as Burton now cemented the Panthers’ lead, and arguably won them the game, with a pair of sublime linebreaks – one from long range, and one from up close. The first was a seventy metre dash out of dummy half, with Dylan Edwards barking for the ball on his inside as he approached the Sydney City line. Instead, Burton backed himself, and would have crashed over were it not for the trysaver of the night for Teddy – a desperate right ankle tap that amplified the personal contest between these two playmakers.

In any other context, Burton might have seemed hasty for not shaping out to Edwards, but this was the kind of gutsy play that galvanises teams. Sure enough, the Panthers were brimming with collective energy as they packed the scrum, determined not to dilute one iota of Burton’s mad dash – and determined to allow him to continue it as soon as possible. As soon as Koroisau touched the footy, he shifted it out to his star five-eighth, who dummied left for a May decoy run, wrong-footed Walker, and swerved back inside past Radley and Verrills.

As he got to ground with Egan Butcher on his back, it felt as if he had indeed run the length of the field in one go, adding the extras to bring Penrith to their final scoreline of 20, and filling in for Cleary more comprehensively than anyone would have thought possible at the start of the 2021 season. No surprise that the Panthers dominated field position now, moving through yet another Verrills error, an illegal Hutchison strip, a successful Challenge to prove it, a dropout, and finally a Keighran escorts just when the Chooks seemed to be out of trouble.

This was crunch time for the Roosters, who were in serious danger of losing control of the game, so it was the let-off of the night when Leota knocked on during the first tackle, and sent it upstairs to try and maintain Penrith’s momentum. This time the Panthers were knocked back, despite a brief question of whether the big no. 18 had maintained possession as he rolled the footy down Egan Butcher’s boot, and Sydney had a much-needed scrum feed.

They built on it with their most efficient period of consolidation all night, thanks to two key linkups. On the one hand, the Butcher brothers bookended this set with a new synergy, starting with a pair of runs, before Egan followed Nat by forcing a dropout with a well-weighted grubber. On the other hand, Tedesco and Manu startsed to synergise, becoming a fullback duo who together amplified the impact of two terrific charges from Teddy himself.

Teddy took his first run midway through the initial set, busting through a couple of tackles, attempting a linebreak, and playing havoc with the defensive line before shifting it on to Manu to continue his momentum. He then assisted Manu after a lovely run from Walker, who received the footy from Lachlan Lam out of the scrum, ran deep into the line, and shot it out for Teddy to flip it on to the right wing. Tago and May had no shot at countering this clinical professionalism, so Manu crashed over for four more before Keighran missed the conversion.

Still, the right edge young guns got a bit of room to flex their muscles a minute later, when they were instrumental in a brief Penrith resurgence before the Chooks finally scored their closing try. Despite a Moses strip, and a terrific quick tap for Teddy, who made twenty metres up the middle, Fletcher Baker flicked the footy back to Mago, who set up a linebreak for May in turn. Nat Butcher did well with the cover tackle, but Edwards was insatiable on the right edge a play later, while Walker was forced to kick a Luai grubber dead for another dropout.

The Roosters needed a big individual effort to regain control of the game, and they got it when Radley stormed out of the line, coming in hard and low to burrow into Momirovski’s ribcage, lift him off the ground, and force the knock-on. This was Victor the Inflictor at his barnstorming best, and it single-handedly changed the rhythm of the game, partly because it spooked Edwards, who was pinged for a leg pull after Hutchison found space up the left edge.

All in all, this was a pretty unlucky penalty – or lucky for the Roosters, since it got them in position for their next and final try. This was pure Sydney City elegance – Walker drifting into the line and shifting it across to Crichton, who caught-and-passed as if the footy barely touched his hands, giving Tupou time to barge over a low tackle from Staines and get the Steeden down before Luai came in. Once more Keighran missed it from the sideline, however, and his errors meant the Chooks had a converted try game rather than a two-point deficit.

Leota did a little better with the next Captain’s Challenge, as Sydney failed to prove that he’d been the culprit in a Tupou knock-on, even if he conceded a penalty for crowding a minute later, just after Tago was pinged for working it on the ground. Manu had also dragged May over the sideline as he was shaping to score during this period, but the Panthers survived all these setbacks, building momentum again off a pair of errors from Keighran and then Tupou.

Burton might not have got a field goal away, or even attempted one, but there was no doubt that he’d lifted Penrith splendidly here, begging the question of how Ivan Cleary will broker this newfound vision when Nathan is back on the park. They’ll be looking to smash the Dragons when they have their star halfback on the turf next Friday, while this was a painful loss for the Roosters, who’ll be keen to put it behind them with a big one against the Broncos. 

About Billy Stevenson (751 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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