SEMI-FINAL: Penrith Panthers v. Parramatta Eels (BB Print Stadium, 18/9/21, 8-6)

For the second straight week, the Panthers have only scored a single try – and this time it was enough for them to win an instant finals footy classic. With a scoreline of 8-6, this was not only the lowest scoring game of the 2021 season, but the first finals match with a single figure scoreline since Manly met the Roosters back in 2013. Even more remarkably, all of these points were scored by halftime, making Nathan Cleary’s penalty kick on the first siren the winning margin. The game could only have been better if Parra had pulled off the upset win.

As it was, they came remarkably close, and certainly scored a victory of sorts in not permitting Penrith to score more, although of course that just made their loss all the more agonising. As it stands, this was their best game of the season, along with their victory over Melbourne – and yet where they were scrambling there, they were disciplined here, giving the mountain men a real run for their money. No surprise that Mitchell Moses proved himself a worthy adversary for Cleary too, as Blues halfback went up against Blues halfback for a stellar clash.

Both teams had an enormous amount on the line here too – even more than you’d normally see in a finals eliminator. Parra haven’t won back-to-back finals since 2009, while Penrith had to win after their shock loss to the Bunnies next week to prove that they’re not finals chokers – and to ensure the future momentum of the club, whatever happens against the Storm at Suncorp. Ray Stone was clearly going to be a key player after fifty tackles (and none missed) against Newcastle, and his rocks and diamonds night said everything about the Eels’ spirit.

This was also one of the most brutal finals matches in some time, more intense than Origin as the two clubs simply smashed each for the first quarter. In fact, they both seemed to spend most of the night on their goal lines, struggling time and again to bring the Steeden back over the halfway mark. Like his tenture at the Tigers, Ivan Cleary had showed his players how to win with defence here, since after two botched tries at the end of the first quarter they had to contend with a Parra outfit determined to prevent them getting four more on the board.

Blake Ferguson took the kickoff, and a crowd of Panthers swarmed on Junior Paulo to prevent him making any run metres on tackle one. Reagan Campbell-Gillard only took it out of the red zone on play three, and then made another run two plays later to bring it beyond the thirty – but only just, leaving it to Mitch Moses to recoup the field position with a beautiful kick deep into the right corner. Now it was Penrith’s turn to be trapped in their own end, despite a barnstorming run from Fish into Marata Niukore, as Cleary booted it from his own thirty too.

The Eels made it over the halfway line with their first left sweep on the next set, and Dylan Brown took his first kick, sending it almost as high as Moses had long, although it didn’t end up giving Naden much of a challenge for his first collect. Fish was massive again midway through the set, when Paulo lifted him off the ground, and Moses came in to finish the job, while RCG continued to spearhead the Penrith charge with more punishing contact, before Cleary made his mark defensively by driving hard and low to lift Dylan Brown off the turf too.

Both sides were struggling for field position, and Matt Burton gave his men a leading edge with a sharp run early in the next set, clearing up space for a pinpoint Cleary kick that trapped Parra right on their own line. As a result, the Eels made less headway here than on any set so far, forcing Moses to kick from his twenty – and once again he delivered, with a bomb that went long and high, reaching Dylan Edwards at the Penrith thirty. Apisau Koroisau broke through the line a beat later, and shifted the ball inside to Cleary with the lowest pass so far.

For a moment, Cleary fumbled it, and the clutchiness of him regathering it, right on the line, seemed to guarantee the four points, but instead Dylan Brown delivered the first great trysaver of the night, slamming in just in time to prevent Cleary sliding over beneath the crossbar. It’s weird to see Cleary come this close and fail, and yet the Eels would prevent Koroisau assisting a second try a moment later, with a harbour bridge ball out to Burton, who looked set to cross for all money before Fergo summoned a huge pack to drag him into touch.

Parra’s gold streak (and Brown’s gold streak) continued a set later, when they sent a supposed knock-on upstairs to prove that Brown had played the ball beautifully, maintaining control of the Steeden despite a fast pickup at an awkward angle. Niukore got them rolling again with post-contact metres over the halfway line, and Moses consolidated further with a towering bomb that spiralled, swirled, and utterly defied Edwards, who had to wait for it to careen back towards the defence as Waqa Blake took it on the bounce and popped down the opening try. 

Despite Parra’s terrific defence, and judicious challenge, this was still a try against the run of play, by an ex-Panther no less, and a worrying sign for Penrith after their shock loss to the Rabbitohs last week. Ray Stone boosted the restart with an offload to Nathan Brown, and Clint Gutherson nearly broke through the line a tackle later, suggesting that the Eels might well build some flow off these six points, even if Moses opted for a more conventional bomb. They were just as good in defence too, especially Stone, who stopped Crichton in his tracks.

A couple more sets and Parra might have scored again here, but instead Fish forced a crucial error, swinging his arm into Nathan Brown to produce the first knock-on of the game. The Panthers had the first close-range attack of the night, and elasticised for the first time as well, while Cleary got a chance to showcase some stellar footwork as he pivoted the play from right wing to left, where the mountain men got a successful challenge of their own to prove that Will Penisini had knocked on a Fisher-Harris offload before Gutho held up a big Naden charge.

Fifteen minutes in, this was the first repeat set of the game, and the first set entirely in the opposition twenty, so Penrith had to capitalise now with a six point deficit on the board. The big men laid a platform in the middle, with Capewell taking two tackles to the right of the posts, and while the Panthers failed to execute a proper left sweep, big Kurt did the job with his third charge in the same spot, off a beautiful Cleary grubber that drew Dylan Brown out of the line, leaving space for Capewell to take it on the bounce and surge over for four points.

This had been an underwhelming set up to this point, so the try was a testament to Cleary’s capacity to consolidate. He was always going to get the extras from this angle, bringing us to 6-6 on the scoreboard as the second quarter loomed. It felt like both sides were finally warming up, and yet there was only a penalty goal more in it, since we were about to experience one of the most grinding hours in finals footy in years – a desperate effort to take the lead, and nab another try, that saw the game turn into a war of attrition by the final siren.

Both sides had spent the first quarter smashing each other, ratcheting it up to an Origin intensity with minimal mistakes and only one restart. Penrith should have capitalised at this point, but they got unlucky twice, suffering two near tries, and two long periods of Bunker scrutiny, that put a serious dent in their momentum. They came off a high tackle from RCG on Leota, who milked it a bit, but still deserved the penalty, and then a no-look offload from Momirovksi to Crichton, who never gave up on the play, flicking it inside on the cusp of touch.

These two enterprising plays laid the platform for a Penrith consolidation, and the mountain men got their chance when Blake knocked on Cleary’s next kick. They swung left, as Cleary shifted the Steeden to Luai, and Blake came in for the ankle tap, getting the Penrith five-eighth to ground, but not decisively enough to prevent him returning to his knees and slamming the footy down a moment later. In one of the more technical moments of the match the try was denied due to an obstruction from Cleary on Moses just after the potential assist.

Yet that just begged the question of what it meant, technically, when Moses was deemed to be offside before making contact with Cleary – as an offside player, could he actually be obstructed in the first place? The call went the way of the Panthers, who got another set from the ten, where Cleary immediately swept right, as if to put the frustration of Luai’s near-try behind him. Heartbreak was waiting there too, though, as Momirovski drove into the line, and almost had space to ground it himself, before repeating his early pass across to Crichton.

The no. 2 was unable to avoid the touch line this time around, sliding onto the chalk just before getting the Steeden down, as the Panthers faced two failed sweeps, and two failed linkups between Momirovski and Crichton. Parra had been tested on both sides of the park and come away with seven tackles to boot, but they got their own heartbreak a moment later, when Dylan Brown mirrored Moses’ towering bomb, and Edwards made the same mistake twice, although this time he reached for the footy as it flew straight through his open arms.

Gutho collected it, and lobbed it out to the left wing so forcefully that it was forward by the time Blake tucked it under his right arm to ground it cleanly. Even worse, Blake was taken off the park without a try to show for his injury, as Will Smith came on in his place. Meanwhile, Moses was barking mad after claiming that Viliame Kikau had run him off the footy, and so squared off Kikau on his next kick – and came off the loser, attempting a chip-and-chase, but barely covering two feet as big Billy took it on the full as if Moses had always aimed for him.

Nevertheless, this was the second straight set when the Panthers had struggled to get out of their own end – and they didn’t make the halfway line this time either, as Burton reached out his left hand to pull in an unnecessarily messy pass from Kikau, who was clearly fired up from the Moses contact. Burton was facing his own goal line but still knocked on as Fergo smashed into him, ushering in the most sustained field position so far for Parra, who started to really make up for their lack of goal line attack during the first quarter with a restart off the scrum.

Dylan Brown took a forward-like run to bring them into the ten on tackle three, and Moses ended with his first decent kick in a few sets – a crossfield chip that continued his personal agon with Kikau, who knocked on while reaching out a palm to tap back. This was the first blue and gold set in the opposition red zone, and the Eels swept left out of the scrum, but couldn’t get far when Momirovski absolutely smothered Nathan Brown. Luai did the same to Gutho when Moses tried to swing out the other edge, yet Moses tried again a mere play later.

Dylan Brown followed suit, replicating his wide ball off the scrum for Haze Dunster to force a dropout with a pair of grubbers right on the sideline and trap Edwards behind the chalk. Parra had the first dropout of the game, and they needed the extra field position to breach the strongest defensive outfit of the year, as RCG got them rolling, and Dylan Brown reprised his earlier run with another charge straight into the Penrith ten. Ryan Matterson drove it at the left post, Kikau and Luai took down Niukore, and Moses got it right with the grubber again.

Cleary had no choice but to clean it up in goal, so the Eels had a second straight dropout, as Junior Paulo took over from RCG for the opening run. Gutho dummied, and risked an early wide pass to Dunster, but it soared just a little far, meaning the young backliner didn’t reach the ground soon enough to take advantage of the space before him – and ended up dropping it anyway. Over the last ten minutes, Parra had enjoyed 73% of the footy, but Penrith did well to recoup the loss, making way for Cleary to execute his first kick in an age at the Eels’ thirty.

We now got a flashback to the opening of the game, as one Panther pack after another kept the Eels buried in their own end. No sooner had Matto taken them out of their red zone than Moses booted another enormous one that Edwards had to take on the run, and yet Burton elasticised on the first tackle in turn, while Pangai got a late offload to Koroisau, Luai glimpsed a space and Cleary came up with one of his bigger kicks of the first half. The game was back to the finals intensity of the first quarter, as Parra got six again off a Kikau ruck infringement.

Both sides were now searching for the tipping-point – and for a moment it looked like it might be Naden’s next take under the high ball, the most elegant of the first forty, as he leaped a metre in the air, high above the oncoming chase, to secure Moses’ bomb on the full. Yet it all came down to two dangerous tackles in the closing minutes. The first, from Lane, got Penrith up Parra’s end; the second, from Smith, set up Cleary to boot through a penalty goal on the siren – the winning two points, although neither outfit could have guessed this at the time.

These were also the last points of the match, as the Panthers ground in to win the back half off defence. Gutho’s kickoff hung conveniently for Edwards, and Cleary only got to kick it at the halfway line due to a Pangai-Koroisau offload midway through the count. Fergo did well to stagger backwards and collect it on the full, right on the Parramatta line, but the Eels didn’t make quite as much headway as Penrith, so Moses had to kick five out from the halfway mark.

Matterson smashed Edwards on the next set, and Pangai got his second offload away for Koroisau, only for the tackle to be held complete. The ex-Bronco took out some of his excess energy with a big shove on Smith, before Cleary steadied the ship with a nightmare bomb. Not only did Dunster take it clean but he ran thirty metres to break into Penrith territory for the first time since the sheds, elasticising the game again as Cleary chased him down and tried to strip the footy back – and, when that failed, tried to summon a pack to put him into touch.

This was a big moment for the Eels, and Penisini consolidated with a massive left edge fend on Burton, clearing up space for Gutho to become the first man to reach the red zone since the break. Paulo took Parra into the ten on the penultimate play, so it all came down to a Gutho grubber that Crichton collected just before Blake could score, swerving away to avoid being bumped over the sideline. This ushered in the nadir so far for the Panthers, who only made twenty, before Ferguson came up with his most foolishly flamboyant moment this year.

It came on the back of a Mitch Kenny tackle that Fergo milked into a penalty by remaining prone on the ground, and clutching the back of his neck, as if he’d just copped the crusher of the season. No sooner had the Penrith forward pack relaxed, though, than Fergo leaped to his feet and got up in Kenny’s face. He already got the penalty, so this was the same kind of attitude we saw from Will Chambers during some of the Sharkies’ more desperate moments this season – a sign of weakness more than anything else, and poor sportsmanship to boot.  

The penalty did the trick though, getting Parra right on the Penrith line by tackle three, as Pangai started to sporadically pull himself out of the defensive line, suggesting that the blue and gold just might have a chance here. Cleary cleaned up Moses on the left, and backliners from both sides leaped up to collect the high ball as Burton waited calmly for it to clear them and land in his hands instead. Overall, though, Penrith were getting a taste of their own medicine, since they were crunched up on their own goal line like Parra had been to start off.

In fact, it was starting to look like Parramatta might win here – and if they’d scored a single try they would have, almost getting their next chance when the Panthers only just survived a brainsnap wide ball on play one from Naden, before Cleary made his second straight kick in his own thirty. Jumping for the footy hadn’t worked under the last high ball, so nobody jumped now, allowing Crichton to follow Burton by taking it with both boots on the ground.

We were at that point where one of the halves needed to send up a floater – and Cleary was the man, sailing it so high that even Fergo’s massive frame wasn’t up to the task of staggering back to take it. That move had worked earlier in the second forty, but Fergo now let it sail clean over him, as Burton scooped it up and shifted it across for Naden to juggle, regather and slam down for what initially seemed like a certain try. In yet another agonising denial, however, the Bunker showed that Luai had been offside downtown as it all came together.

This was a massive letoff for Fergo, and Moses knew it, grinning as he spoke to Ash Klein before his men got a restart off a Capewell ruck error, an additional tackle by mistake, and then a much-needed dropout off a superb Gutho grubber past Burton and Naden that forced Edwards to put his body on the line as Fergo chased him down so aggressively that he slid past him and into the fencing. Dylan Brown now made his third great charge of the night, taking the Eels into the twenty, and Carty swept right soon after, but couldn’t get the offload.

The Eels had to rely on a crossfield chip from Moses – and once again this looked like a tryscoring sequence, as Lane tapped it back for Smith to a left sweep that ended prematurely with Crichton’s best collect of the game. Smith surged into a Brown-on-Momirovski tackle a few seconds later, and his contact forced the footy free. He was held to have knocked on too, as Parra sent the worst Captain’s Challenge of the year upstairs. Not only was the knock-on not reversed, but Smith was pinged for an illegal strip, and the Eels had lost their challenge.

Carty now found himself on the other side of a frustrated right sweep, cleaning up Edwards just as he’d been contained while trying to offload on his own right wing a moment before. This was the former Panther’s best passage of play all year, as he now rolled back to the other side of the park and secured the footy when Moses couldn’t quite contain Cleary’s kick. That dexterity galvanised Fergo into an early offload to Smith in turn, but even with that second phase, which set up Paulo for a big opening run, the Eels were cramped down their end again.

Moses had to boot it thirty-five metres out from his line, and Edwards continued a stellar night with another great kick return to play the footy at his own thirty-five metre mark. In a microcosmic vision of the Panthers’ precarity here, Momirovski fumbled the ball on the right edge, but never allowed it to touch the ground, leaving the remaining tackles open for Yeo to set up Cleary for a beautiful grubber that Gutho almost drove back into touch before Naden and Burton converged to smash him over the sideline, bringing in the next dropout sequence.

The Panthers were settling into some of their most fluid footy of the game when Fergo dumped Burton on his back with the best low shot so far – hard, fast and deep into the ribs. Fish steadied the ship with a decent offload to Moses Leota, and yet the set was starting to lose momentum, culminating with Luai trying to replicate Cleary’s grubber down the left wing, where Smith scooped it up easily, and forced Luai to infringe the ruck as he got the set away.

Fergo’s tackle on Burton shaped the next period of the play, starting with Burton getting some joy by dumping Stone on his back, meaning Moses’ next big floater couldn’t come at a better moment. It bounced at a crazy angle, but Capewell was still able to field it, and even flick the footy onto Edwards for a powerful opening run. Yet Moses wasn’t going to let his bomb go to waste, channelling Fergo as he came in low and hard on Edwards to rattle the football free.

Mitch got there just in time to avoid a late hit, but Niukore wasn’t so lucky with his contact on Fisher-Harris, which was deemed high as the big frontrower left the field – and you know it has to be a tough hit when Fish heads to the sheds. In a remarkably ballsy moment, the Panthers now chose to tap and go, with only two points ahead on the board, as Scott Sorensen made a big impact, anchoring the set with a hard drive on the fourth that laid the platform for Cleary to almost slam over beside the right post – and for Pangai to follow in his slipstream.

Pangai actually hovered over the grass for a few seconds, bringing in one of the toughest Parra packs of the night to hold him up. Matterson did the grunt work, Gutho got under the footy, and Smith continued a mammoth performance by holding it all together, although Luai was better than all of them on the next set, when he outdid both Fergo and Moses’ low tackles to dump Stone unceremoniously on his back. Penrith packed the scrum at the thirty as Luai, buoyed by the adrenalin of this hit, tried to reprise Cleary’s grubber to the left a second time.

This was the wrong decision for a whole host of reasons – most notably that Burton was calling for it on Luai’s outside – and it wasn’t even the last play. Gutho was able to bring it back in field this time, while Moses congealed with arguably his best low kick of the game – hard, fast and skidding down the middle. Edwards had the most run metres of any player, and added more here, and yet Parra seemed to have recovered from the Luai tackle – until it came back to haunt them, not by way of another Luai effort, but with a frustrating error from Stone.

It came after a perfect kick that trapped Gutho right in the corner, just when the Eels needed a big play to take them out of their own end – a fumbled play-the-ball from Stone, who became the worst casualty of the slippery Steeden and humid conditions. In any other game, a Pangai-Sorensen offload right on the line would have done the job now, but Niukore was in place to swing a big arm straight into the ex-Shark, who was taken off the field. Niukore was put on report for a second time, but it was probably worth it, since this was a true trysaver.

Blake had left the park after a near try, and Sorensen followed in his footsteps, as Fish rejoined the fray. In an even ballsier decision, Penrith opted to tap and go a second time, as Pangai took another charge into the right post, but was unable to get an offload away, before Luai summoned his trademark left foot step but couldn’t get the better of Stone this time around. Capewell couldn’t twist and spin through Carty either, while the Eels rallied their most desperate pack yet to prevent Koroisau plunging over of dummy half in Capewell’s footsteps.

If Parra had won, this would have been the pivotal moment of the game – Api putting in a big dummy to the left for what would have been a certain try if the Eels hadn’t executed their best defence of the year. Penrith still got a dropout at the end of it all, but Parra survived, thanks to a punishing tackle from Dunster that rocked the footy from Momirovski’s grasp. This is the kind of volatile and precarious moment – tipping-points – when Fergo comes into his own, and sure enough he broke into space up the right edge here as Parra glimpsed a try.

Fergo’s aim with the boot was true – a kick at speed back inside to Penisini – but Naden was even clutchier, reaching out an arm and bouncing it back for Burton to clean up. Stone took out his team’s agony with an absolute belter of a tackle to skittle Edwards to ground, so Cleary just had to kick for position now, booting it from his thirty back to the Parramatta twenty. Fish collided hard into Paulo on the next set, keeping his offload tally to zero, while Stone’s rocks and diamonds night continued when he lost the footy forward while passing to Moses.

At least that’s how the refs saw it, since despite the horrible service out of dummy half it did still seem like Stone had flicked it back here. In any case, Parra didn’t have a challenge left in their arsenal to contest it, and no time to reflect on it either, as Penrith barged into their territory, and into the last ten minutes. After two botched left edge grubbers from Luai, Cleary resumed kicking duties into the corner – and yet this just prompted the most heroic take yet from Gutho, who hit the Steeden at speed and somehow secured it as it bounced off his chin.

Trapped in his own thirty, Moses still had to boot it with all his might, and while he didn’t quite strike it hard enough to reach the Penrith line, he did still force the mountain men to work back from their own twenty, as a pair of Edwards runs took them halfway by tackle three. Koroisau channelled his mad charge on the line into a decent dummy half run, Cleary absorbed this speed into his next kick, and Gutho absorbed both plays into his fastest take yet, this time on the other side of the park, as the game entered its maximum adrenalin stage.

Again, Paulo failed to offload, this time thanks to a combined tackle from Capewell and Kenny, and while Moses hoisted it high, Naden leaped even higher, clearing the chase by a full metre, while clamouring (unsuccessfully) for an aerial tackle. Koroisau had been accelerating ever since almost breaking through, and he overook himself here, coming to ground beneath Paulo and Stone, who finally got a break when the subsequent Captain’s Challenge proved that he’d never attempted to strip it free – that this was simply an old-fashioned loose carry from Api.

This was crunch time for Parra, the moment when Gutho, Brown and Moses needed to lead their men to their first consecutive finals win since 2000 – the moment when the blue and gold needed to band together and forge a new future. Paulo took it left on the first tackle and was again unable to get an offload, Gutho failed to complete the sweep as the cover defence surged in, Papali’i fended off Kenny and almost smashed over, RCG drew it closer towards the posts, and Papali’i had another shot when he landed on his knees and reached out the footy.

He almost got it down, but Penrith recovered just in time, meaning Moses had to get the kick right on the last – and he did, booting it deep in goal for Edwards to land on with Gutho behind him. Everything came down to this next set, as Cleary caught his breath before kicking the dropout. Fergo reached out his right boot to take it on the bounce, and RCG made solid post-contact metres up the middle, tumbling over Kenny who copped a knock that took him off the park, as play paused in the middle of this most critical set, only a few minutes on the clock.

Moses was a ball of fury, trying to keep the rage alive for his men, as Pangai came onto the park, and Papali’i got Parra rolling again with a deep drive towards the posts, before Nathan Brown sent it left to Gutho, who took it even deeper into the line, and lost it backwards. He clamoured for a strip, but the Eels didn’t get it, and only had one more tackle to work with – a Dylan Brown bomb that Burton collected with three minutes to go. Moses and Gutho made a heroic tackle on Pangai late in the next set, as the game now reached an unbearable pitch.

This would have been the time for Moses to shape for a two-point field goal, but the Eels couldn’t get him in place – and yet his grubber was almost as good, ricocheting off Yeo for Gutho to offload for a Capewell knock-on that gifted Parra the scrum with ninety seconds left. By the time they’d packed and played it, there was less than a minute – and if they’d scored here it would have gone down in Eels history. As it was, this was still the perfect closing note to an instant finals footy classic, as the Panthers got set to defend their goal line one last time.

Paulo tried to streamroll through on the left, RCG followed in his wake, and then Paulo put it down on play three. The game came down to an unforced error, as Penrith got seven tackles, but only needed a couple to slow down the play until the siren rang out. Parramatta’s season is over, while last year’s grand finalists will be meeting in a preliminary final next week – and let’s just hope that Penrith bring the same courage and conviction they showcased for this 8-6 score, which made their two decisions not to kick for goal in the back stanza even gutsier.

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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