Friday night’s match at Cbus saw the most experienced team play the least experienced team in this last week before finals footy. In fact, this was the most inexperienced Parramatta side since 2003, with only 837 games between them, while Haze Dunster, Blake Ferguson and Joey Lussick were the only players in the same position as last week. Apart from Shaun Lane, they had no NRL experience on the bench, while they were resting both Clint Gutherson and Mitchell Moses, giving Will Smith a chance to take on captaincy duties against his former club.
By the closing quarter of the game, the Parramatta backline felt entirely mutable, thanks to a plethora of young guns still getting used to these positions, along with a major reshuffle when Hayze Perham was taken off with a late injury. Add to that failed HIAs for Keegan Hipgrave and Oregon Kaufusi, and it was a miracle that the Eels managed to hold their own at all – especially during the first stanza, when they kept it 6-12 into the break. Put that down to the residual momentum of beating Melbourne by 12 last week with the big players on the park.
On the other side of the Steeden, this was a full-strength Panthers outfit – only the eighth time this year that they were fielding their first-choice selection. Nathan Cleary, Isaah Yeo, Jarome Luai and James Fisher-Harris have all missed games this season, but the flipside is they’ve all been rested, which perhaps explains why the Panthers felt so fresh here, gaining in energy and intensity as they rolled into the final quarter. Last time they met Parra a Matt Burton field goal got it done, but tonight they scored 28 unanswered tries in the back forty.
Most of those points came off a theme and variation on their left edge – Cleary, Luai, Burton, To’o – but Cleary was the man underpinning it all. His whole body language has changed since returning from injury, and intensified again since Penrith’s loss to the Storm. Again, he came on to the park looking up the heavens, as if gazing at the peak of his best possible bomb, while he scored the last try with a grim determination, and a direct gaze at the sports camera, that spoke to his evolution as a leader in the wake of the twin Penrith and Origin losses last year.
Blake Ferguson took the kickoff, and a pack of Eels swarmed in to drag Moses Leota three metres back on the opening carry. Isaah Yeo was unable to make much more headway, thanks to a low driving tackle from Ray Stone, although Cleary recovered some position with a big kick down to the Parramatta ten, where Perham fielded his first high ball of the night. Arthur showed he could bomb just as high, if not quite as far, and the Panthers got the first major advantage, thanks to a ruck error from Oregon Kaufusi and a grapple from Keegan Hipgrave.
Leota made up for being dragged back with a couple of post-contact metres to take Penrith into the Parramatta ten and Dunster did well to halt their first sweep to the right edge with a suffocating tackle on Paul Momirovski, even if he did knock on the footy while cleaning up this potential assist. Yet that just gave the Panthers a platform to score a clinical try on the other wing, out of the scrum, when Cleary dummied and sent it out through Jarome Luai for Brian To’o, who easily twisted and spun his way out of the contact of Fergo’s massive frame.
This was a David-and-Goliath play where David had the advantage, since To’o was able to parlay his short stature to duck his way under Fergo’s arms – the courageous effort that Cleary himself has so often showcased right on the line. Meanwhile, Cleary started to get his kicking average back on track too with a beautiful shot from the sideline, while Hipgrave mustered some joy after his opening penalty by forcing a fumble from Api Koroisau early in the restart.
This was an unexpected chink in Penrith’s armour, so the Eels needed to build upon it pretty quickly. Instead, they only reached the red zone on the penultimate play, before Smith came up with a nothing kick that Dylan Edwards collected without missing a beat. In effect, the Panthers now resumed their restart, since the last bout of defence hadn’t take anything out of them. James Fisher-Harris made the toughest charge so far, Cleary kicked on the fourth, and Perham knocked on while collecting it on the line, without a Panther anywhere near him.
In another kind of game, this might have felt like luck, given the lacklustre Penrith chase, but here it just felt like an extension of Cleary’s kick, which had been leisurely in its confidence, certain of gaining a result, like a panther taking the time with its prey when it’s certain of the outcome. The mountain men now had a full set in the Parramatta ten, and while Hipgrave did well to shut down a Fish offload, hitting the second-rower so hard he took a moment to return to his feet, Stephen Crichton and Liam Martin nearly crossed on the right and left respectively.
Martin, in particular, probably could have scored here, since he only had Perham to contend with on the way to the line, while Crichton got another disappointment on the last, knocking on a deft Cleary chip in the air while contesting it with Dunster, meaning it didn’t matter that he was run off the ball a second later. Hipgrave was put on report for the contact on Fisher-Harris as the Eels got stuck into their set, but it was quickly eclipsed by a stunning chase from Michael Oldfield, who charged down a Smith kick on the second to drag Edwards into touch.
This was the second big rhythm-changer for Parramatta, and this time they capitalised on their stint on the Penrith line, getting a bit more breathing-room when Kurt Capewell was pinged for a high shot on Arthur. For a moment, it looked like the Eels wouldn’t make it, as Lussick ran out options in front of the crossbar, where he was forced to take the tackle, and two big Panthers packs drove back Hipgrave and then Stone in quick succession. Everything depended on the kick – and Arthur delivered with the best-placed grubber of the game so far.
Arthur booted it just deep enough to make Momirovski and Crichton a little complacent as the footy split them on the dead ball line – and that would have probably been enough for Penrith to survive if Tom Opacic hadn’t come up with Parramatta’s best individual play of the night, busting past Momirovski and reaching out both hands to slam it down just shy of the dead ball line. Fergo booted through his first goal since 2018, but the Eels didn’t do much with their restart, as Opacic made a clumsy early pass that bounced forwards off Opacic’s chest.
The next passage of play was dominated by the big men, as Tevita Pangai Junior came off the bench for Fish, and Leota made more post-contact metres, before Makahesi Makatoa surged in to absolutely skittle Martin on the left edge. Yeo straightened and steadied the play, and the Eels got six again off a Lussick ruck error, heading left for Fergo to signal his forward-like stature too by wrapping himself around Burton. That front row spirit then extended to Arthur, who came in with a dazzling legs tackle to prevent Capewell scoring off a flat ball from Cleary.
Yet none of those plays were equal to Pangai fresh off the bench, who scored his second try beneath the posts a mere play later, thanks to some beautiful ball handling from Koroisau, who gave new meaning to the title dummy half, subliminally showing the footy instead of lifting it up for an initial pass, and so clearing space for Cleary to assist Pangai back in field. Hipgrave was the last big man in this forward-loaded sequence, coming in for an attempted trysaver, and ricocheting back beneath the bars for some brutal head contact with the grass.
He got some brief medical attention before leaving the park for Lane, while Cleary made it 200 points for his third season with the conversion, and ended the restart with a pretty deft bomb too. Lussick responded with exactly the right kick – or almost did – booting it from within the forty, and recouping some field position, but not quite making the 40/20, and ultimately not even regaining all that much position, due to some scintillating To’o footwork.
This was good work from the Panthers, but with 65% of possession, and 11/13 completions, they really needed to flex their muscles further here. Instead, their next three kicks failed to produce any results, even though the first, a floater from Cleary, was pretty well placed. Cleary followed with a 40/20 attempt that was smothered and charged down, and while his men got six again off the back of it, Burton followed it with a mistimed kick over the sideline, and took out his frustration with a crusher on Smith early in the subsequent Parramatta set.
This ushered in the first really dominant position for Parra, who responded to these three unproductive kicks with three terrific grubbers, and three straight dropouts. The first came off the first real synergy between the halves, as Arthur took the Steeden deep into the line, and shifted it out for Smith to send it off the side of the boot. You know it’s a good angle when To’o is forced to concede the dropout, and the Eels continued to consolidate on the next set, as Makatoa took a tough run on the first, and Perham pulled in a slightly overlong Arthur pass.
Perham then forced a second dropout with an equally well-weighted kick on the other side of the park, and while Cleary booted it all the way to the other forty, Kaufusi brought it back twenty, and Viliame Kikau conceded even more position for colliding into Arthur post-pass. Parra now had their big chance – a full set in the Penrith red zone – but the balance gradually shifted back to Penrith, starting with an awkward play in which Arthur lost the footy backwards out of a Capewell tackle, and Perham followed him, forcing Dunster to collect it.
Kaufusi recovered some momentum with an offload out the back to Carty, but Kikau contained Makatoa on the next play, while Yeo did the same when Oldfield tried to charge up the right on tackle four. By this stage, the mountain men seemed to be back in control, and yet the Eels got a third dropout, and a second from Smith, who showed he could do it on both sides of the park with another superb grubber than Crichton had to bat over the dead ball line, as news returned from the sheds that Hipgrave had failed his HIA, and wouldn’t return.
Ky Rodwell marked his NRL debut with a couple of big metres after contact, and for a moment Smith seemed to have found a consolidation groove, as he pivoted off the right boot, and showed the footy from side to side, only to let his eagerness get the better of him as he fumbled the play-the-ball. The Eels might have restored some of the possession balance, but this sequence was ultimately a tribute to Penrith’s goal line defence, since even after three straight dropouts they’d barely broken a sweat – though they’d be defending again presently.
Ray Stone delivered two strong tackles to start the next Parra set, Carty stood in the tackle for a good three or four seconds, and while Edwards caught the kick on the full, Burton knocked it on a few plays later. All of a sudden this brief blip of Penrith position faded into the distance, as we seemed set for more goal-line attack, only for Edwards to come in low, with Crichton on top, to force the footy free from Kaufusi on tackle two – a tough one, since the big prop was dominating the VB Hard Earned Index with 105 run metres, 34 after contact.
In fact, the two outfits were player-for-player on the VB Index, with Kaufusi at 44, Leota at 39, Makatoa at 36, To’o at 35 and Stone at 34. That said something about Parra’s resilience throughout this first stanza, despite their inability to capitalise on their field position. All they needed was a great individual play, and Fergo had potential when he contained the next high ball right on the line for what initially looked like one of his trademark make-or-break moments down the wing, but neither a spectacular choke or a spectacular break ensued here.
Moments later, Carty made his second poor decision of the night after his pass to Opacic, offloading on the ground without any intuition for who was behind him, and so forcing Stone to knock on as he dove for it. From here, the first stanza ended pretty quietly, with only a lone error from Crichton, and with only six points between the two teams – pretty impressive for a Parra side that had so little first-grade football experience behind them. It was paramount the Panthers deliver a really decisive second stanza, and they did, with 28 unanswered points.
The Eels were pretty dominant when they returned from the park, rolling down the field for Smith to boot it right to the Penrith line, and then mustering a pack to drive To’o back after Fergo tried to contain him but only caught the tip of his hair. Yet the Panthers reversed the momentum midway through their first set with a well-considered Captain’s Challenge to prove that a supposed Edwards knock-on had actually been an illegal strip from Joey Lussick.
The big men took it straight up the middle, and while Perham knocked back Cleary’s kick, the mountain men dragged back Opacic much as the Parra pack had dragged back To’o. Cartwright had his third and worst brainsnap of the night when he lost the footy in the face of a four-man tackle commanded by Cleary, who then executed a beautiful set piece out of the subsequent scrum, running around the back, and double-pumping to draw in Oldfield as Luai mirrored his movement to run around behind him, and receive the football for the assist.
By the time Fergo slammed into Luai, To’o was already crossing on the wing, as Burton finished running the decoy on the inside. This was the same play as Penrith’s opening try, but it felt so rarefied now that it was an understatement to say To’o had crossed over untouched – it was more like he’d crossed over unseen, before Parramatta could even properly perceive what was happening. Cleary booted the two from the left sideline as quickly and clinically as he’d set up the try in the first place – just the vision and leadership that Penrith needed now.
The next few sets were the Kikau and Stone show, as big Billy danced over Kaufusi on the restart, and only came to ground when Stone plummeted into him. Smith clamoured for a high shot from Kikau towards the end of the next tackle count, and seemed so certain of getting it that he slowed down the play, forcing Arthur to kick shallow under considerable pressure. Kikau was still fired up, and took advantage of the position with a big left edge run, while Stone had the last word in this flex-off with a bone-rattling hit to bring Fish to his knees.
Stone embodied a Parramatta outfit that weren’t giving up, even though they hadn’t made a tackle in the Penrith half since the break. Carty drew on Stone to expel some of his frustration with a huge hit on Scott Sorensen a set later, but the Panthers just had a different kind of energy now. Cleary, Luai and To’o had all bounced off the ground on their way to the last try, and they seemed to be floating just above the turf now, with an extra spring in their step, as To’o more or less somersaulted through the next Parra pack that converged to hold him up.
The stage was set for a torrent of Penrith tries, but both teams had a setback before that occurred. Sorensen was taken from the park with a right arm issue after copping some friendly fire from Martin in a Makatoa tackle, while Fergo stuffed up the Eels’ best chance since the break when he took a Smith bomb on the full but flicked it ahead to Shaun Lane. The pass was overtly forward, but Ferguson was absolutely livid with the call, condensing the shared passion of the Parra players into a series of volatile remonstrations with the referees.
This kind of incredulity at a reasonable call can sometimes really lift a team and make them believe they can win against all the odds, but it wasn’t to be the case here, especially since Fergo’s volatility would lead to Parra losing their Captain’s Challenge in an equally clear-cut situation a few minutes later. Smith was also the worse for wear, refusing a mouth bandage after biting straight through his lip, as blood oozed freely down his face and onto his chin.
With so much happening in a single sequence, this felt like a convergence moment in the game – the last real chance Parra had to come away with a historic David-against-Goliath win. No surprise, then, that they tried to mirror and absorb Penrith’s momentum, starting with a Yeo linebreak on the right edge, and a near-linebreak in the same spot from Martin, forty metres up field. Smith tried to reprise this break on his own right edge on the following set, but while he found space, Olfield was pinged for an old-school obstruction on Fisher-Harris.
This was all Penrith needed to repeat their opening tryscoring formation for a third time, in a slightly different iteration, as Cleary got them rolling with his best engagement with the line all night. He drove the footy as deep as possible, holding it up until it could see the whites of Smith’s eyes, and hovering it so close to the five-eighth’s chest that he seemed to be daring him to strip it, or to mistake it for a potential intercept opportunity. From there, he sent it out across the face of Fergo to Luai, who this time opted for Burton instead of a cut-out to To’o.
Sean Russell had just come on the park for Parra, and his first job was an unenviable one – trying to stop Burton as he shaped for To’o and pivoted off the left boot to slam it down untouched. Cleary’s conversion from the left edge was as good as his last, but in a different way, as he hooked it even more precariously towards the right post, while Fergo’s kickoff couldn’t have made a starker contrast – an overlong boot that Crichton caught out on the full.
If Ferguson’s judgement had been bad when he contested the forward pass then it was abominable here. Although he was 150 metres away from the footy when it landed, compared to the touch judge a metre away, he somehow convinced Smith to send it upstairs – and sure enough the replay clearly showed Crichton stretching a boot over the sideline to take it. Again, this insatiable passion can be Fergo’s biggest asset, but at this stage of the game it was his biggest liability, leaving Parra without a challenge as Penrith set up their next try.
This time it took place on the right edge, where Martin very nearly broke through the line on play three. Arthur did well to bring him to ground with a legs tackle, and then slow down the play-the-ball, but the Parra defence couldn’t match him when Koroisau snatched it out of dummy half. Api was ten metres out, with a host of options, but he knew what he had to do here, taking advantage of his short stature by bending towards the ground as soon as he touched the Steeden, before swerving away from Carty and then Russell to score four more.
Cleary missed his first kick of the night but this was still a rousing sequence for Penrith, who now had 9-0 linebreaks, along with a tough five minutes for Russell, who’d conceded tries on both sides of the park. In fact, Cleary was so good that it begged the question of when the Panthers were going to rest him, since he was no longer needed to keep Parramatta out, or to secure the number two spot, while he’d be absolutely crucial in the finals footy to come.
Instead, they kept Cleary on until the seventy-fifth minute, a ballsy decision that paid off, since the greatest halfback in the game managed to provide his men with an extra injection of energy to drive them into next week. Meanwhile, Carty got a consolidation offload to Arthur, which in turn provided Parra with some much-needed time in Penrith’s half, but while Smith tried to build on it with an enormous bomb, Edwards took it easily – and was even better under the next kick, when he leaped a metre to land in the face of the oncoming chase.
In any case, Fish’s next offload to Cleary showed the Panthers could easily match Carty’s second-phase play, while the Kikau-Smith angst reached a new level shortly after. Smith was already frustrated at not getting the high shot penalty from Kikau earlier on, and he copped the most ordinary play of the night now, as Viliame pushed him to ground and trampled over him en route to the high ball. Kikau was penalised, and Parra made their best drive into Penrith territory since the break, until Arthur was in position to chip from fifteen metres out.
Not only did Leota come up with it, but he made seven metres after contact, which said everything about Parra’s chances at this stage, especially as word came down that Kaufusi, like Hipgrave, had failed an HIA. No surprise, then, that the mountain men scored again now, off the first of two long-range variations on their left edge combo that would close out the game. To add salt to the wound, Kikau set it up, pulling in defenders before offloading out for Burton to make sixty up the sideline, while Smith was the only man in place to confront him.
A millisecond earlier and Smith’s legs tackle might have done the job, but as it was he made contact with Burton’s left boot just after he’d kicked the footy in goal, where To’o had to leap into space to put down his first career hat trick, as a cloudburst torrented over Cbus like a ticker-tape parade for Parra. The atmospheric conditions didn’t prevent Cleary adding the extras to make it 34-6, although they did get the better of Pangai, whose trademark tendency to reach out the footy, and rely on his body weight to play it, lead to a lost ball on the restart.
This was the last real chance for the Eels, as Opacic glimpsed space of the scrum, and Arthur fumbled and reined in the footy in the face of a Pangai tackle, only for Cartwright’s horror night to culminate with a grubber on the fourth that Cleary reached out his right boot to casually contain before Martin dove on it. Cleary was all business now, smothering Carty early in the next set, and showcasing the same steely determination that we saw during Penrith’s loss to the Storm back in Round 20 – their first real hint of what finals football would entail.
Somehow, Cleary’s moustache is a big part of that picture – he’s like a superhero who’s been through fire, and come out more sober but also more focused, and he got a chance to showcase that same grim conviction at the end of Penrith’s final tryscoring sequence. Again, this was a left edge effort, although it started on the right, where Luai caught the footy right on the ground, and then sent it via Kikau and Burton out to To’o on the other side of the park.
Up to this point, To’o had mainly been a finisher, but he showed how beautifully he could assist here, ducking under an Oldfield tackle like he was slicing through butter, and making his way from the Penrith thirty to the Parra thirty, where he shifted it across for Cleary to score untouched. As Cleary slid across the grass, there was no ecstasy, no excitement, and no real celebration – just a frank look of determination as he stared directly into the camera, as if mustering the audience, as much as his players, to bear witness to his supremacy right now.
In other words, this was the perfect time for Cleary to leave the park, and he did so, with five minutes on the clock. He left behind a different vision of football genius, and a different kind of prodigious persona, from what we’ve seen from Turbo, Tedesco and Papenhuyzen over the last few weeks, perhaps because his singularity has been just a little eclipsed by those other players, and by Turbo in particular, making this gaze to camera a statement of intent.
Even without Cleary, though, the Panthers were dominant – by this stage they’d regained control of the VB Hard Earned Index, with Fish at 69, To’o at 63, Leota at 57, Koroisau at 55, and Makatoa at 54. Wherever the Sea Eagles and Roosters end up in the contest for fourth place, Penrith will be playing South Sydney next week, and they should be up to the task if Cleary’s leadership is anything to go by, although you can be sure that Adam Reynolds will also be playing for his Rabbitohs legacy as well, on the back of his own record-breaking year.