Sunday afternoon’s game at Redcliffe wasn’t a bad performance from the Tigers, all things considered, given they were up against almost the best team Penrith could name. Sure, the mountain men were playing second-gear footy for long stretches, seemingly unconcerned by their shock loss to the Bunnies last week, but the visitors still held their own here, thanks in part to a strong night with the bombs from Luke Brooks, captaining in James Tamou’s absence. By the final siren, they only lost by fourteen, and put down the last two tries to boot.
Matt Burton tried to contest the kickoff, and while David Nofoaluma got the best of him, the Panthers summoned a big pack to drag Stefano Utoikamanu back to the try line on tackle one. Thomas Mikaele took a tough charge, and Alex Twal made two, but they were unable to recoup much field position, and so Jock Madden took his first kick of the night within his own forty, while Penrith were back inside the Tigers’ forty by tackle four of the following set. Moses Mbye handled Nathan Cleary’s first bomb pretty cleanly, and the Tiges stuck in again.
Jacob Liddle took the kick this time, and once more had to boot it within the forty, opting for a long, low angle that didn’t take the wind into account. Penrith got seven tackles when it rolled over the dead ball line, and were on the cusp of the red zone with two plays up their sleeve, thanks to a deft run from Cleary, who ended with a bomb to the left corner that also misread the breeze, sailing over the sideline on the full before Burton could tap it back in field.
The Tigers tried to use this third set to steady themselves, using the first couple of tackles to work it hard and straight up the middle, before Luke Brooks made his first kick on the third – a good instinct, even if it did ricochet off the defence. In any case, his opposing halfback made an error just as quickly, with a rare knock-on, after emerging quickly from the shady part of the park to try and take the footy while staring straight in the sun. The Panthers didn’t have to wait long to get the ball back though, as Shawn Blore now conceded an early obstruction.
Losing and regaining their momentum seemed to galvanise the mountain men, who were on the Tigers’ line by tackle three, when Burton aimed for his third and most enterprising play down the left edge – a mad dash at the chalk that very nearly saw him crash over. Penrith swept right just as quickly, where Stephen Crichton channelled this momentum down the other wing, but Brooks was as staunch in defence as Nofoaluma had been on the left, and all in all, this was a testament to the Tigers’ resilience in defending the best outfit in the league.
Still, Cleary was determined to pick up the last set just where he left off, dummying and almost breaking through the middle, before Jarome Luai popped the first wide ball of the night across to Brian To’o. He got the footy down, but not without drifting a boot into touch, thanks to a second straight trysaver down this left wing from Nofolauma, who slammed across from twenty metres in field to drag his target into touch. This prompted a searching play from Liddle two tackles into the next set, as he dummied and set up space on the Tigers’ own left.
For a while, the next couple of players looked for space in the same place, and while the play never congealed, Madden’s next kick was a beauty, with a spiral that totally defied Dylan Edwards, who reached forward so far to collect it than he ended up falling onto the ground. This was the first real advantage for the Tigers – a complete set in the Panthers’ twenty – so they had to capitalise quickly here. Brooks cleaned up space for Mbye on the left, but he couldn’t get it out to Ken Maumalo, and things stagnated from here, despite a shift back right.
Madden had the right intuition with a stealthy short ball to Mbye, but again the Tigers fullback was unable to capitalise off a strong pass, dropping it cold in the face of a tough tackle from Liam Martin. Worse, Luciano Leilua was put on report for a dangerous hit on Martin midway through the count, as the Panthers entered the Tigers’ red zone so leisurely you’d never know they were defending their own goal line a few seconds before. They were playing second-gear footy, and still Cleary almost made it to the line on the left, and Edwards out on the right.
To’o followed in Cleary’s steps a few plays later, coming even closer to the chalk on the left wing, so it felt inevitable when Cleary got a good angle with his grubber on the last, which ricocheted off the left padding and sat up perfectly for Moses Leota to slam down the first four. In slow motion, there was no doubt the star halfback was aiming for his post, sending it off the inside of his boot so fast and hard that it would have cleared the fence if he hadn’t got the deflection. His conversion was just as good, if far easier, putting Penrith six on the board.
Wests brought in a big pack to prevent James Fisher-Harris progressing on play one of the restart, but Leota compensated with good post-contact metres a few tackles later, despite initially seeming somewhat winded after this uncharacteristic try. Even so, the visitors survived, and Liddle broke into space early in their next set, showing the mountain men that he could assist a frontrower as well, with a superb short ball back in for Utoikamanu to crash over. Brooksy added the extras, and just like that the Tigers showed they had a fighting shot.
Liddle’s linebreak was the first real indication that this wouldn’t be the landslide you might expect this late in the season. As if trying to rectify Burton’s missed shot at the very start of the game, Viliame Kikau tried to take the kickoff here, but he didn’t account for the breeze, and ended up conceding a scrum back to the Tigers instead of preventing the restart. Conversely, Brooks read the breeze beautifully with his most soaring bomb so far, forcing Crichton to stagger back to his own try line before the Panthers tried to restore some position.
This felt like a minor consolidation moment – and then a major consolidation moment when Cleary dropped the footy for a second time while copping the sun straight in the face. As it turned out, though, it came off a shove in the back from Chee Kam – or, rather, would likely have happened even without Chee Kam’s shove, which made this turnover even more agonising. Yet Burton had his fourth frustration on the left edge, reaching out a hand for the grubber only for Mbye to scoop it away, before Isaah Yeo infringed the ruck for another six.
Little by little, the Tigers were getting the upper hand here, as Brooksy shafted through another enormous kick, and Burton, like Crichton, was forced to take it right on the chalk, where he was confronted by Nofoaluma, who was determined not to let him break into open space. Kikau came closer four tackles later, tumbling more than breaking through the line, and yet while Cleary had enough time with the boot to summon a Lachlan Lewis-like calm, he was unable to match Brooksy’s two bombs, giving the Tiges another slight burst of confidence.
Nofa may have lost the footy into a combined tackle a few plays later, but he regained his composure immediately by contributing to some of the clutchiest defence so far to prevent To’o crossing over on the back of this sudden shift in position. Madden reset the rhythm further with a big kick that trapped the Panthers in their own red zone for the first half of the subsequent set (even if it didn’t quite match Brooksy’s soaring brilliance), forcing Cleary into a conservative kick from his own forty that Mbye took without any real chase to contend with.
By contrast, the Tigers received their second six again halfway up the park, waging a war of attrition as the Panthers finally got into first gear with almost thirty minutes on the clock. Even their biggest runners could only make about five metres at a time, before Edwards cleaned up the Steeden on the line, albeit not without a big Brooks tackle that showed the Tiges hadn’t given up here either. This felt like a turning-point in the game, as the light subliminally shifted from early to late afternoon – the moment when both teams truly dug in.
Madden got ambitious with his next kick, aiming for a 40/20 but not quite nailing the bounce, and so conceding seven tackles back to the mountain men instead. The light was now too golden to make the sun a real liability, creating a new sense of confidence and calm as the Panthers worked it up towards the right edge, where Yeo broke into space but was unable to find a support runner. Once again, Nofa stopped Burton when the Panthers swung left, before Cleary repeated the only formula that had worked so far with a boot towards the right post.
This time, however, Brooks was in place to contain it, landing on the footy before any of Penrith’s big men could reprise Leota’s putdown. A dropout was a small price to pay for this enterprising defence, especially since the Panthers seemed to have run out of ideas here, with Yeo also simply repeating his play from the previous set with a similar charge up the left. Penrith needed an error now, and they seemed to have got it when Alex Seyfarth dropped the footy, only for Matt Cecchin to correctly call that Crichton had actually made the mistake.
The Tigers had thus saved a try and survived a dropout, suffusing them with a new confidence as we started to reach the last five minutes before the break. In a classic Tigers turn, Brooks now mistimed a pass to Chee Kam out on the left wing, while the Panthers accelerated rapidly out of their scrum, focusing their energy on the middle third for precisely the emphatic four-pointer they needed to reassert themselves at this point in the game –Tevita Pangai Junior’s first try in the Penrith jersey, and possibly the toughest one-man try in the entire 2021 season.
Receiving a short ball from Cleary ten metres out, Pangai basically barged his way to the line, bullocking into Liddle and Seyfarth, ducking under and over Mbye, and still finding himself five metres out from the chalk, where he reached over a last-ditch low tackle from Seyfarth and slammed the Steeden to ground. Even in real time it looked like a slo-mo replay, so deliberately and methodically had Pangai disposed of the defence – a poetic contrast to the speed of Cleary’s assist and subseqeuent conversion, which put the Panthers six ahead again.
This was also a milestone for Cleary, who became the second youngest player to reach 1000 NRL points following Graham Eadie back in ‘77 – and by only 34 days. No surprise, then, that the Panthers brought it all together on the next set, as Kikau made the best offload so far out of a Tommy Talau tackle – a left-handed flick pass that Burton took on the ground before sailing down the left sideline for what seemed like a certain try. Once again, though, at this critical juncture he was denied, thanks to yet another organisational effort from Nofoaluma.
The Panthers might have recovered their dominance during these last five minutes, but by denying Burton the Tigers made it clear they weren’t going down without a fight either. As if trying to contain the import of his splendid try, they rallied a big pack to hold up Pangai on the first tackle back from the break, while Cleary hadn’t yet adapted to the breeze at his back when he booted his first kick two metres over the left sideline. This was good early field position for the Tigers, and Brooksy capped it off with a deft crossfield chip to the right wing.
Yet Burton was in place to collect it, leaping up for a clean containment of what initially looked set to be a mini-surge for the visitors. After a brief spotty start, the Panthers now recovered as quickly as they had at the end of the first stanza, thanks to a rough penalty on Tom Amone for a hand in the ruck, and a rapid right sweep two tackles later – or, rather, a one-man right sweep, as Luai receiving the footy from Cleary at the ten, and drifted diagonally across a succession of defenders, relying on a big dummy out left to dance over Blore for the putdown.
Once again, Cleary added the extras, and so the Panthers had now bookended the break with two of their best sequences of the afternoon. Luai also took the kickoff on the restart, and Pangai the first tackle, tacitly resetting the game after their frustrated first set back from the break, while Luai ended the set too, with a beautiful chip at speed that Mbye had no choice but to pop into touch with Burton at his back. Kicking into the breeze, Brooks only made forty, and yet Blore got some joy now, after letting through Luai, with a low hard hit on Sorensen.
It was tough enough to rattle the footy free, putting the Panthers on the back foot as Blore compounded this terrific play with a good ten metres after contact up the left. Things slowed down a bit on the other side, on tackle four, when the Tigers tried and failed to get a restart, but even so the Panthers really needed Edwards’ splendid kick return to recover from this sudden dent in their momentum. He ended up right where Brooks had made his kick, summoning enough speed to lay the platform for a Kikau break and putdown two plays later.
This was a revised repeat of Cleary’s earlier fast ball to Big Billy, except that this time Kikau didn’t go for the flick pass out to the wing, opting instead to run it alone, smash off Mbye and come to ground for a stunning sequel to Pangai’s try from the forward pack. Full credit to Cleary, too, for running deep enough into the line to clear up space for his second-rower’s break – and of course for another easy kick too, bringing Penrith to quadruple Wests at 24-6.
On the other side of the Steeden, Seyfarth was now off with a leg injury, bringing Jake Simpkin off the bench, while these two tries paradoxically deflated the Panthers, who sunk back into second gear, suddenly complacent in the face of a Tigers outfit that had only scored a single converted try. They were making good metres, but the ball control and discipline was all over the place, as Fish popped an unnecessary offload forward, and Kikau infringed the ruck midway through the following Tigers set, as Madden glimpsed some good space on the right.
Still, the visitors didn’t break the red zone on this restart, while Crichton took Brooksy’s crossfield chip safely on the left edge – proof the Panthers could actually afford to be pretty complacent here, especially with only a week left until finals footy. In any case, they started to speed up again on their next set, and while Cleary booted it within the forty, Mbye almost went the way of Edwards, reaching out his hand for the spiral and missing the catch. He did knock it backwards, but this still ushered in a real slog of a set as the Tigers tried to recover.
By this stage, you had to wonder whether the Panthers were aiming for player welfare more than a really resounding win – opting for more conventional strategies to minimise any risk of injury to their key playmakers. The Tigers were showing the strain of so much defence too – most painfully when Talau was in perfect position for an intercept on the line, touching the Steeden at the peak of its arc, en route from To’o to Kikau, with the whole length of the park open behind him, only to drop it, turning a sublime long-ranger into a Penrith set in the ten.
Kikau plunged at the left wing on tackle one, as if to drive home just how spectacularly this intercept had failed, while Luai followed in his wake a play later, landing centimetres out before Cleary took a forward-like run in front of the posts. To their credit, this was decent defence from the Tigers – and things got clutchier when Koroisau invoked Cleary’s assist for Leota by ricocheting himself against the left padding, twisting and spinning in four separate attempts to get it down. In the end, though, it came apart with a forward pass from Cleary.
This was as uncharacteristic as Nathan’s cold drop in the first half, so the Tigers really had to capitalise when they got a restart off a Koroisau ruck error a few tackles later. Instead, Chee Kam put it down, as we entered the final quarter of the match – and what promised to be the messiest quarter, at least from this last sequence of play. Nobody could have predicted that the Tigers would win this last twenty minutes by four points, even if Cleary compounded possibly his spottiest period of the season with a second cold drop, and no sun to blame now.
You could sense a new kind of determination from Mikaele, Nofa and Blore as they got stuck into the next set – the resilience that comes when a team is playing for pride, with nothing else to lose. That wasn’t enough to offset the general messiness, but it did suggest that the Tigers wouldn’t concede a torrent of points during these final fifteen minutes. Still, it was dispiriting to see Maumalo follow Talau with another failed intercept on the other edge of the park, especially since he too hit the ball at what should have been an opportune moment.
To be fair, he probably prevented another Penrith try here, knocking on the Steeden just as they were cascading into one of their most elegant left sweeps of the night – so elegant, in fact, that they were able to redirect its momentum back to the other wing straight off the scrum. Everything happened like clockwork, as Cleary ran deep into the line, Luai ran the follow-up, and To’o took the cut-out to finally bang down four in the corner. Cleary had one of his more difficult conversion angles here, but he still slotted it through to bring it to thirty.
Again, in another kind of game, you might have expected the mountain men to keep piling it on here, but these would be the last points they scored tonight, while the Tigers would put down two more to bring it to a relatively respectacle tally of 30-16. That result was even more impressive in that the Panthers looked certain to score on the restart, thanks to a barnstorming break from Kikau, who set his eyes on the chalk the moment he got the footy, before taking it again on the third and barging through the last line of defence to cross over.
Between these two plays, it was a minor miracle that Kikau didn’t score, especially since the on-field ruling was a try, and yet the replay showed he lost control while twisting out of an Utoikamanu tackle. He’d delivered a sublime long-range play and a sublime close-range play, effectively exhausting the Penrith attacking arsenal for the next period of the game as the Tigers steadily mounted a late comeback. The first step was pretty eccentric, as Brooksy got the worst cut of the breeze yet, sending the kick into a gust that blew it fifteen metres back.
A couple of knock-ons ensued, but the Tiges actually ended up with the ball again – a chance to revise this average set with some more enterprising play. Utoikamanu translated his defence back into attack with a terrific catch under pressure, while Mikaele followed with his most restless run of the night on the cusp of the red zone, tempting a high shot from Kurt Capewell in the process. He stayed on the park, but Mbye copped some heavy contact as well, leaving the field for the last ten minutes as Joe Ofahengaue came off the bench for a late stint.
All of a sudden, the game seemed to have entered a new phase – the light had shifted again from late afternoon to evening, while the Tigers were now camping out on the Penrith line, getting six more off an Edwards ruck error before Simpkin smashed through Pangai, reached out the footy, and just grazed the chalk enough to bring his men to twelve once Brooks added the extras. This was one of the defter plays of the night, and the stealthiest out of dummy half, as Simpkin simply ducked low to storm through the space Mikaele had just carved out.
Play paused two tackles into the next set when Leilua landed on his left arm at an awkward angle, but there was no issue with the Penrith defence, who got some significant breathing-space by the time the Tigers resumed the restart. With the wind in his face, Brooks wasn’t able to make much headway with the kick, meaning the Panthers were back at the twenty by the last tackle, and yet they couldn’t capitalise here, despite another strong charge from Kikau. In fact, this was Burton’s last big push on the left, and it ended as abruptly as his first.
That seemed to bring the game full circle for the Tigers, who had done especially well to contain Burton tonight, galvanising them into one last tryscoring set, when they got ball back in hand. Brooks set it up with his best bomb and most dangerous bounce, splitting Crichton and Edwards before Chee Kam somewhat popped it backwards for Nofa to scoop it up, shift left and assist Maumalo with a superb cut-out ball. There was a brief question of whether Paul Momirovski had bumped him into touch, especially with the ref’s on-field call of no try.
The replay spoke differently, however, demonstrating just how dextrously Maumalo had kept both boots of the ground, hovering in mid-air to get the Steeden down a millisecond before the ex-Tiger sent him over the sideline. Brooksy’s last kick hit the post, but this was still a minor victory for the Tigers, who’d only lost by fourteen points, won the final quarter, and put down the last two tries against the top ranked team in the comp. Call it part of their long journey back from their loss to the Warriors, and a motivator for the Bulldogs next Sunday.