QUALIFYING FINAL: Penrith Panthers v. South Sydney Rabbitohs (QCB Stadium, 11/9/21, 10-16)
Many critics wrote off South Sydney after they lost Latrell Mitchell to the Joey Manu hit, but they came back big on Saturday night for one of the toughest games of their 2021 season – and only the second game that they’ve won primarily on defence, following their win over the Wests Tigers in Round 6. This was the second game in the QCB double-header, and while the first match was a near-upset, with the Chooks only just managing a field goal win over Gold Coast, this was a genuine upset and one for the ages, with Souths coming away 10-16.
In part, that was due to the brilliance of Blake Taaffe at fullback, against Crichton as stand-in fullback with Dylan Edwards off the park. Crichton’s first game at custodian was back when the Panthers slaughtered South Sydney in Dubbo, so there was a sense of everything coming full circle tonight, since that 12-56 loss proved to one of the critical motivators and momentum-builders in the Rabbitohs’ season, and in Adam Reynolds’ record-breaking year.
Just as dramatically, the Panthers had won their last six games over Souths, who hadn’t notched a win against the mountain men since Round 7, 2019, so this game effectively reset the rivalry between the two clubs if they happen to meet again this finals season. As it stands, the Panthers have to play the winner of Sunday’s Eels-Knights clash, and won’t get to meet Melbourne for a GF rematch – they can only meet them in a preliminary, while the only team to lose a qualifer and win the premiership in the last 14 years has been the Cowboys of 2015.
The Bunnies smothered James Fisher-Harris for the first carry of the game, and did the same for Matt Eisenhuth and Isaah Yeoh, inducing Jarome Luai to kick on the next tackle, from well within his own thirty. Adam Reynolds took a big drive at the line early in the next set, the Bunnies got six again a few plays later, and Jaxson Paulo managed to pop the ball back inside when a Penrith pack tried to drag him over the sideline. South Sydney were on the Panthers’ line by tackle two, and got a penalty after Cameron Murray received a Tevita Tatola offload.
Murray lost the footy, but it was stripped by Kurt Capewell with two in the tackle, so Reynolds played it safe and took the penalty kick from right in front. The Bunnies were already dominating field position over these first five minutes, and got six again midway through the next set, working their way methodically upfield until Cody Walker elasticised the play with a wide ball out to Alex Johnston. Reynolds opted for the same combo on the last, flipping it out to Walker for what seemed a certain try until Crichton barrelled in for a last-ditch legs tackle.
Paul Momirovski came in on top to finish the job, Cleary kicked early on the next set, and it paid off when Blake Taaffe came to ground to catch it, slid forwards on his knees, and coughed it up – all when he had ample space to take it cleanly on the bounce. Two tackles later, Penrith were in the South Sydney red zone, where Cleary almost broke through the line with a show-and-go, and Paulo showed that the Bunnies could defend just as well, with a big hit on Matt Burton before he could shift it out to a totally unmarked Brian To’o on the Penrith left edge.
It all came down to the kick, and Cleary stepped up with a move he must have spent ages mastering, splitting the difference between a grubber and banana by sending the footy off the side of his boot to rumble dangerously along the ground before slowing down, sitting up and ricocheting at an oblique angle just before the dead ball line. Momirvoski read it beautifully, matching Haumole Olakau’atu’s effort over the back line last week – not leaping as far, but flicking it even blinder, in an underarm effort that felt just as rehearsed as the kick.
Crichton put it down, and Cleary added the extras with the third in a trilogy of kicks that had single-handedly turned the game back in Penrith’s favour. They got their first restart on the restart, off a ruck error from Murray, but this time Cleary couldn’t work his same magic on the last, with Jaydn Su’A muscling in to prevent one of his trademark David-on-Goliath runs at the line. Play paused while Damien Cook was examined after big contact on Burton earlier in the set, but he was cleared pretty quickly, and the Bunnies got stuck in for more position.
Now it was Reynolds’ turn to kick before the last, from his own end, while the Panthers really started to elasticise, starting with a restless run from To’o and ending with a regulation Cleary bomb that Taaffe managed to defuse this time, in the face of a great chase from Luai. Still, he had to work it from his own line, while the Bunnies were struggling to make metres, as Reynolds now kicked from his own thirty, rather than his own forty – perhaps starting to feel the impact of the 75% humidity conditions that had proved so gruelling during the early game.
Cook now proved he was recovered with his first steal in four years, stripping it from Fisher-Harris mid-field, and yet even then the Bunnies didn’t reach the Panthers’ red zone, while Crichton continued to channel Edwards by collecting Reynolds’ kick on the full. Still, the Rabbits were coping without their star backliner as well, as Taaffe now took another kick clean, proving Latrell’s absence hadn’t made a dent yet. Even so, with two big players missing, you sensed the next error under the high ball might determine the next passage of the game.
The error came from Crichton, and was unforced – a simple fumble in the air beneath Reynolds’ kick. It gave the Bunnies their first decent attacking position since their penalty, as they camped down on the Panthers’ line, so it was agonising when Tatola put down a high-pressure pass from Cook, and Murray took out his frustration, or tried to stem the next Penrith surge, by holding down. As if realising he needed to take control at both ends of the kick, Reyno was the one to take Cleary’s next bomb, defusing a big Burton charge up the left.
It was becoming a pattern that the most convulsive moments were occurring before and after kicks, since Liam Martin now boosted the Bunnies up field with an unintentional crusher on Campbell Murray on tackle one. Tom Burgess barged them up the middle with a pair of Panthers on his back, Jai Arrow followed in his wake two plays later, and Walker grubbered to the left, where Charlie Staines cleared it up, but without making any metres, as Penrith got stuck in for a cramped set, barely breaking the ten by the time they reached their third tackle.
Cleary did well to boot it to the Bunnies’ thirty from about his own thirty, but Taaffe took it clean, Dane Gagai brought it over the halfway line, and Walker caught-and-passed it onto Graham just as he was crunched in a tackle, all for Crichton took it on the last without too much pressure. With the second quarter well underway, and only four points between the two teams, it was starting to feel like we might be in for a low-scoring game – and, accordingly, that the next outfit to score might well hold court over QCB at least until the halftime siren.
Su’A got the Bunnies rolling with the best offload of the night early in the next set, flicking it on for Reynolds who sent it even further towards the wing, where Kikau knocked it on to grant them six again. This consolidation was so fast and furious that it galvanised South Sydney into their first try – a beautiful pivoting effort to the left and back inside again. It started with a left sweep through Murray, Walker and Taaffe to Gagai, a sweep that invoked Latrell, and probably would have ended with one of his sublime runs if he’d been on the park.
Instead, Gagai compensated for Mitchell’s absence by palming off Staines, and swerving back infield, where Martin only got a fingertip to his jersey before he shifted it back inside for Walker to break through the line and score untouched. Reynolds was always going to add the extras, and the Bunnies had recovered their two-point lead, while almost exactly levelling field position with 82% to Penrith’s 85%. Yet Su’A made his second error on the restart – and had less of an excuse this time, since this was a classic cold drop into a tough tackle from Luai.
As quickly as South Sydney had capitalised on the last Penrith error, the Panthers capitalised here – not with a try, but with a penalty kick to level the score again, as Cleary booted through two off some crowding from Keon Koloamatangi. The mountain men did better than the Bunnies after points, building a platform in their own end for Yeo to break through the line and take it straight down the middle. He didn’t find anyone waiting for him, but Burton continued his momentum with the best grubber since Cleary’s assist to force the first dropout.
Taaffe did well to contain this nightmare bounce, but the Bunnies didn’t have time to count their blessings as Pangai brought the footy to the thirty on tackle one – and they didn’t need to by the time they arrived at tackle two, when Martin spent too long staring Arrow in the face and so put down a standard Cleary pass. Koloamatangi started making up for his previous penalty with a tough first carry, laying the platform for another scintillating left edge play from Souths that culminated with a kick at speed from Johnston – and an even classier chase.
Johnston wrapped his arms around Momirvoski just as he was sliding down on his knees to gather the Steeden into his chest, putting enough pressure on him to force the footy free, as Walker, who had been offside for the kick, got back onside, stuck a hand into the maelstrom and actually got a hand to the tip, only to knock on into the ensuing chaos. Nevertheless, the call came down that the ex-Tiger had flicked it forward first, so South Sydney got stuck into a dropout that quickly turned into a penalty kick when Pangai crowded Burgess’ play-the-ball.
Reyno ended the restart with one of his highest bombs so far – a statement of intent that Cleary finally matched right on the siren, when he booted through another penalty kick off a quartet of South Sydney errors that ended with an Arrow offside. Both teams headed to the sheds with ten under their belt, and there would only be another try and penalty kick scored all night, as the game became closer, and points even more precious, in the second stanza.
This was already a pretty sobering outcome for the Panthers, who had to hit back big after the break to keep their finals momentum alive. South Sydney had the first carry, and expanded immediately with a Murray-Arrow offload, while Reynolds and Koloamatangi combined to drive back To’o midway through the following set – a big contrast to his elastic first tackle run that set the tone early in the first half. Conversely, Burgess added to his post-metre tally with his next run, and the Bunnies got the first penalty back a couple of plays later.
It came as Arrow plunged through an ankle tap from Crichton, careening into Momirovski to force the high contact, and surviving the HIA to boot. Burgess made his twelfth run, the Bunnies were five metres out from the Penrith line, and now mixed things up with two right sweeps. The first ended with Taaffe being brought to ground, but Reynolds wasn’t fazed, waiting for Arrow to steady the play again in the middle of the park, and then driving it deep enough into the line to draw in both Burton and Luai before flicking it past Graham to Taaffe.
This time Taaffe had enough position – not to cross over himself, but to assist Paulo, coming in low and hard on To’o to clear up space for his winger to get down untouched. In keeping with this close-cut game, Reynolds missed his first kick from the right touchline, but you couldn’t doubt his vision and tenacity in reprising that sweep out to Taaffe, while this would be the last try scored by either team all night. Reyno sent his next attacking kick from the right too, and Crichton took it cleanly, though once again To’o was defied by a big Rabbitohs pack.
Graham was instrumental in this combined effort, and followed with a strong individual tackle on Luai, helping to slow down the Penrith attack until even Cleary decelerated into a fairly average kick, which made it all the more remarkable when Johnston dropped it cold, right on the line, without the slightest whiff of a Penrith kick chase in sight. This was the first time we glimpsed some argy-bargy, but the Bunnies quickly absorbed it back into the scrum, and got some joy when a bouncing ball from Momirovski precluded a decisive set piece on play one.
They conceded six again a tackle later, and just as quickly Arrow delivered one of the great one-man plays of the night, smothering Capewell to ground and forcing the knock-on, thereby concluding one of the most frustrated and aborted scrum sets of Penrith’s season. To’o managed to make a few more metres on the next set, but even so South Sydney were winning the battle of defence here, containing Penrith plays that had seemed all but uncontainable for large stretches of 2021 – or pre-empting and defusing them before they even eventuated.
Things got even worse for Penrith as Murray trotted onto the park to inject some fresh injury into the South Sydney forward pack, while Burgess headed to the bench after a workhorse performance, so they had to make the most of a marginally late tackle from Koloamatangi, who only just failed to wrap his arms after Cleary had got to the kick. After ten minutes of arm-wrestle, the Panthers were starting at the Bunnies’ red zone, but they were met with a cardinal and myrtle wall that stopped them from even sweeping it very far from side to side.
As a result, Crichton had to resort to a grubber – and it was a beauty, leaving Cook with no other option but to bump it into touch, ushering in the most convulsive sequence of the second stanza so far, as Reynolds booted it short, Burton lost it back, Paulo came up with it, and managed to get it back in field as Kikau spearheaded a Penrith pack to drag him over the line. What happened next was anyone’s guess, as the Panthers sent it upstairs to confirm that Luai had come up with the footy as Su’A piled in on top, and so belatedly got their dropout.
Walker, Host and Cook tried to cancel Luai’s collect by combining to drag him three metres back early in the count, and it did quell the Panthers’ momentum, leaving them with one play on the left, where Kikau again combined with Paulo, this time by ricocheting the footy off him to get his men six again. Yet the Bunnies came good the third time they met Penrith on this side of the park, when To’o caught a harbour bridge ball from Luai, but had to leap so high he left himself vulnerable to a big defensive unit that dragged him over the side without a beat.
On the cusp of the final quarter, this was turning into a pretty uncharacteristic game for both clubs – for a South Sydney outfit who’d only won a single match through defence this year, against the Wests Tigers, and for a Penrith outfit who were questioning and doubting themselves so much that they seemed to be slipping back to their loss of face against the Storm in Round 20. Cleary tried to steady the ship with a soaring bomb, but Burton lost it backwards, and the Panthers burned their challenge trying to prove Reynolds helped him out.
Mitch Kenny had collected Burton’s knock-back, and had been clinically disposed of by the South Sydney defence, so he was presumably taking out some of that frustration when he swung an arm into Su’A’s face a tackle later. Souths now got their twelfth tackle in the Penrith twenty, and Reynolds ended with one of his most mercurial grubbers, prompting an even better save from Crichton, who took it beside the left post and weathered a pile-on from Panthers and Bunnies alike, staying just in play for the most courageous take of a kick all night.
Reynolds did better with the next kick – or got luckier, since he was already under pressure and unlikely to get a great angle away when Burton charged it down to get South Sydney another burst of position. Yeo then followed Kenny with a poor frustration play, this time a crusher on Su’A that set up Reyno to boot through the last two of the night from just inside the thirty. These were the final points of the game overall, a remarkable statement in and of itself from the Bunnies given how decisively Penrith have dominated the back quarter in 2021.
Only a set later, Crichton used tackle one to get outside of Gagai and flick it out to Staines, who shouldn’t have lost this with acres of open space up the right wing. Luai came in for the biggest shot of the night on the first play out of the scrum, bouncing Taaffe onto the ground, but the young winger looked resilient as he laughed in acknowledgment, while coming straight back with a kick in exactly the same place that would likely have ushered in more Souths points if it hadn’t been a little over-weighted, giving Penrith seven tackles to play with.
Yet Taaffe’s comeback was complete at the end of the next Penrith set, when he leaped up before the crossbar to take the footy on the full, not only outsoaring Crichton, but showing that he could also put his body on the line, right on the line. In effect, he cancelled out any residual momentum from Crichton’s last big collect, while also garnering an automatic penalty after Crichton made aerial contact, even though he didn’t really have another option.
Taaffe had won the battle of the stand-in fullbacks, but it was more than that – as if he’d also bolstered Reynolds’ battle with the boot by taking one of Cleary’s more ambitious kicks so courageously. Sure enough, Reyno’s game management reached a new level on the next set, as he delivered one of his best kicks to trap Crichton of all people in goal, and then chased him down, holding him up just long enough for Mark Nicholls to come in for the deal-breaker.
No surprise that Reynolds was fired up, barking out orders at his men as Cleary lined up the dropout, and even letting his enthusiasm get the better of him with a loose ball that Gagai cleaned up midway through the set. Walker kicked at close range, it ricocheted off the defence, and Crichton got some joy by scooping it up, only for Cleary’s chip kick on the third to ricochet straight back into Nicholls’ chest before Staines had was able to get a hand to it.
This had been one of the most dramatic minutes of the game, and got even more dramatic a second later, when Reynolds started a left sweep, Walker sent a cut-out ball for Johnston to grubber, and Crichton reached out a hand to collect it. He would have gone all the way if the Bunnies hadn’t piled on, and Kikau would have done the same, on the other side, a couple of tackles later, if he hadn’t mistimed the pass back inside to Burton with the South Sydney chase at his heels. Between these two plays, the Rabbitohs had proven what good defence can do.
By this late stage, it was becoming clear that the Panthers had a distinct disadvantage – they mostly haven’t had to deal with the psychological pressure of close games this year. That said, the Bunnies were still only six ahead, and well into field goal territory now, although they didn’t get a chance on their next set, when Reynolds was forced to contend with a bouncing ball on the last. Meanwhile, Johnston reprised Taaffe’s effort with a big leap to take Cleary’s next kick, and Nicholls proved himself a second Burgess as he continued to rack up the metres.
Crichton slowed down as he faced off the defence for his next kick return, and his twenty-fifth run, although whether he was fatigued or trying to summon a preternatural calm was hard to tell. In either case he got the mountain men another shot by tempting a hand in the ruck from Walker, and while Su’A responded with a monster tackle on Kikau, the Panthers got their last chance when Luai sent To’o into space up the left edge, and Cleary’s kick came off Souths, only for Capewell to make the most agonising error of the night with a loose carry.
Reynolds booted the next kick with all his strength, and the Panthers had to work it back from their own end for their final set of the night. Luai put it down with fifty seconds on the clock, Souths survived the next set, and the near-upset of Roosters-Titans gave way to a genuine upset, and one of the toughest wins from the Rabbitohs over the last decade, especially without Latrell. They’ll get a well-earned rest next week, while the dazed mountain men will take on the winner of Knights-Eels, and can only meet Melbourne in a preliminary final now.
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