ROUND 1: Penrith Panthers v. Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles (BlueBet Stadium, 10/3/22, 28-6)

Manly had one win from their last six matches, and had lost their last eight opening round stints, when they rocked up at BlueBet to meet Penrith for the first fixture of the 2022 season. Being the underdog wasn’t necessarily the worst thing, however, since they’d been contenders for the spoon in 2021, but got within a game of the grand final. Daly Cherry-Evans looked grim and determined as he led his men out to a sea of boos, faced with the unenviable task of starting the year against one of the greatest outfits in recent rugby league history.

That said, the Panthers had lost Matt Burton to the Bulldogs, Paul Momirovski to the Roosters, and Kurt Capewell to Brisbane, while Nathan Cleary was still nursing the lingering effects of the shoulder injury sustained during the Blues’ 26-0 win in Game 2. Yet any question of whether the mountain men would endure with a revised roster were drowned out by a BlueBet crowd parched for a home game. They hadn’t been at home since Round 16, and had been consigned to watching their team lift the trophy at Suncorp at the end of 2021. 

Even so, they were only sitting at a 60% win rate with Cleary off the park, compared to 92% with him there, so all eyes were on Sean O’Sullivan as he prepared to steer the pack from the halves. So seamless was the Penrith machine that they only let in a solitary Manly try, while racking up 28 points themselves – and with two denied in the opening quarter alone. This was a team who already had their sights set on another premiership, leaving the Sea Eagles to struggle for possession and position between bouts of absolute Panthers dominance.

Toa Sipley took the first charge of the 2022 season, and Marty Taupau the second, greeted by a tough shot from Liam Martin, who would go on to have a cracker of a game. Jake Trbojevic had the third hit-up, and won the first penalty of the year, when James Fisher-Harris was called offside. Brad Parker hit the red zone three plays later, Haumole Olakau’atu smashed through a Jarome Luai tackle to the hit the ten, and Manly had built good position in these opening minutes. If they could secure a try, they’d have a shot at some real flow.

Instead, the set came full circle with Sipley, who took a tough charge on the right, almost reached the line, and became a fulcrum for a shift back to the other wing, where the Penrith defence converged on Tommy Turbo, who never had a chance of breaking through. Still pumped from this opening flow, the Sea Eagles did well to keep Penrith in their own end, despite a Cleary-like charge from O’Sullivan, who also managed to tempt a hand in the ruck from Sipley, as Viliame Kikau woke up, and barrelled the Steeden over the halfway mark.

The mountain men showed they could escalate now too, as Luai popped it out for Izack Tago to break the twenty on their first left sweep of the night. From there, they parlayed all that momentum back to the right edge, upstaging Manly’s last side-to-side play, and drawing on the flow of the grand final, as O’Sullivan truly stepped into Cleary’s massive boots with his first visionary play of the evening – a flat pass that Dylan Edwards reined in in one hand, crisp enough to draw in Parker and so leave space for Stephen Crichton to cross on the wing.

Yet in the first great letoff for Manly, Martin got done for an obstruction on Kieran Foran, who never had a shot of getting there in time. Even better, the Brooky boys got six again midway through the next set, when a silky Jurbo pass almost put Sipley through the middle. They were inside the red zone two plays later, but Jake now went from diamonds to rocks by putting the footy down. With such a rapid series of events, Penrith wisely used the next set to reset, as Api Koroisau started to galvanise the spine with a twenty-plus run through a single marker.

In doing so, he laid the foundation for six again, off a second effort from Taupau, and O’Sullivan built on the platform, effecting a deft shift to the right on tackle three, and popping through a grubber on the last that DCE only just clobbered back into the field of play. Still amped up by the adrenalin of that last attacking bout, Martin now found himself offside within the ten, and Turbo glimpsed brilliance with five post-contacts up the left edge. For a moment, Manly looked set to wrestle all the momentum back from an escalating Penrith.

They were on the ten by the time Lachlan Croker chipped out to the right, where Charlie Staines knocked it back, Taupau came up with it, and Kikau steadied his men with the most patient play so far – waiting offside for the footy to bounce before Tago could scoop it up legally. The crowd went wild as Brian To’o got his first touch of the night, and then again when the Panthers got six more midway through the count, as O’Sullivan ushered in another passage to the red zone, this time by popping it across for big Billy to make the charge.

O’Sullivan stayed in the spotlight too, reaching the Cleary threshold as he swung in open space on the right edge, but somehow failed to put the Steeden down, just as Edwards was inexplicably held up when he received the offload. This had been both O’Sullivan’s most daring play, and the point where Cleary would have transcended the game, so it was remarkable to see how quickly the Panthers regathered with an abrupt swing to the left, where Bizza came up with a scintillating run that by all accounts should have been a try.

Ducking away from DCE on the edge, he ricocheted off Turbo back in field, and came to ground beneath Jason Saab, disposing of a fair few other Sea Eagles in his prodigious passage. Against all footy common sense, it was a second obstruction, from Luai on Croker, although this just added to the tension and spectacle, since Luai is one player who does not like to lose. Conversely, the onus was firmly back on Manly to make the most of two denied tries, and they did well to get the first dropout of the game off a nice DCE boot to the right edge.

This had the potential to be a tipping-point for two key reasons. First, To’o, the near-tryscorer, was the casuality, and was dramatically mismatched with the wiry height of Saab. Second, Saab hit back at Kikau’s patience play by waiting just long enough to avoid tackling Bizza in the air. Penrith needed a big one-man effort now, and Crichton provided it, channelling the rage of his own almost-try into an individual steal on Taupau that Luai, the man whose obstruction had denied To’o, capitalised with a beautiful kick up the right side of the park.

Between Crichton and Luai, the Panthers had reversed the momentum of the game, so it felt inevitable that they would score now – and surprising when, in a brief Manly reprieve, Tago got done for tackling Saab in the air. The Sea Eagles didn’t even get a full set, however, as Ethan Bullemor coughed it up, and infringed the ruck a beat later, paving the way for the first big consolidation point of the game, denied tries aside. Crichton was the man, batting it out on the left to produce a near team try on the wing before the Panthers sent it inside again.

The Sea Eagles might have stayed strong with the edge defence, but Jurbo knocked on as he tried to contend with the kick back in field, while Koroisau finally came into his own in the spine out of the subsequent scrum. First he tried to send Moses Leota through the line, then he attempted to burrow over in his wake, condensing his men into the plosive and focused attack of the grand final. It was a terrific pair of plays, and became a trio when he built on a superb pair of offloads from Isaah Yeo and Kikau to assist Tago in Burton’s old position.

Koroisau had done enough for both himself and Cleary here, with a brilliant wide ball, just as Crichton struck it hard and true as Cleary does, in the first converted try of the 2022 season. In a single sweep the Panthers had reset the game, and while Manly summoned a big pack to drag Leota back on play two of the restart, Kikau more than made up for it with a bullocking charge on play four. Martin continued that momentum up the right, before O’Sullivan brought it all together with a deep kick that Saab did well to take with Yeo and JFH up in his face.

Try as they might, Garrick couldn’t make any post-contacts on play one, and Foran couldn’t break through on play three, leaving the organisation to DCE, who was shut down so clinically when he opted for a boot on the fifth that Foran had to wrap it all up with a second kick to the left. Staines was confident enough to flick a flamboyant wide one out to Edwards, after taking it clean, and again Koroisau shone with twenty metres out of dummy half, while O’Sullivan continued to target Saab’s corner, where the wiry winger was up to the task.

Garrick took another barnstorming run early in the count, but was even further from post-contacts this time, driven five metres back by Yeo and Leota before Penrith bunched in so hard that DCE had to boot his next one from the thirty. This marked the start of a poor period for Manly position, even if the Sea Eagles were doing well, overall, to stay set-for-set here. Attempting to break the growing deadlock, O’Sullivan chipped to the right, and while Garrick took it, Olakau’atu was tempted to come in late on Sorensen a play before.

After so much to-and-fro, it was a sign of respect that the Panthers opted to take the two here. Olakau’atu looked frustrated as Crichton slid the Steeden past the right post, and rightly so, since this felt like it might well be the tipping-point of the second quarter. It certainly felt like a consolidation moment when Sorensen took the first restart, setting his eyes on a big Manly pack, and laying the platform for Yeo to bust through a couple of tackles soon after, before O’Sullivan leaned into that speed by booting it all the way in goal on play four.

For a second, it looked like Luai might force the next dropout as Saab waited for the bounce to become manageable, but once more the no. 2 stayed strong, even if DCE only got to the kick on the cusp of his red zone. Penrith were really rolling now, as Edwards handled a mercurial bounce to make fifteen on the return, and Staines hit Manly territory on tackle two, before the mountain men finally broke the deadlock with six again off a Taniela Paseka ruck infringement. Without a huge Jurbo shot, JFH would likely have broken through right then.

Instead, the hosts couldn’t quite nail the subsequent sweep to the right, perfectly timed until a life-or-death tackle from Garrick, who smashed Staines’ arm into touch just as he was shaping to slam the footy down. Half an hour in, we’d reached a new level of volatility, as the Panthers forced the first Manly error since their try, and Saab finally succumbed to all the pressure directed his way with a rare cough-up. With a full set in Manly’s end, Penrith had to score – and score they did, with a revised and truncated take on that last sweep to the right. 

This time Crichton didn’t bother resorting to the wing when he collected a beautiful wide ball from O’Sullivan, and capitalised on an equally scintillating decoy run from Martin that drew Foran off his line. Realising leadership was needed, he pivoted off the right boot, scooted around Parker, and collided with Turbo at full speed, right on the chalk, before tumbling the Steeden down. He might have swung the conversion away to the right, but the Panthers were still 12-0 after the penalty kick, and had reached their first full footy flow of the season.

Sorensen and Fish laid the platform well on the restart, Kikau followed up the middle, and lost the ball backwards, only for Luai to scoop it up to inject a new adrenalin and intensity to the set. Even Penrith’s errors were working for them now, as Keppie slammed in to down Martin, but again O’Sullivan parlayed the pause into an even greater flow, opting for a deft crossfield chip that Saab caught clean, albeit not without a determined Tago chase that forced the Sea Eagles to work it back from their own line, and DCE to kick from the thirty.

He shaped for a 40/20, didn’t make it, but still managed to clear space for a good enough chase to prevent Penrith hitting halfway until halfway through the set, a small victory in these circumstances. Still, Fish’s run on the fourth was pure conviction, dogged belief his men could make it to the line. Yeo followed by driving it deep enough into the defence for what should have been a perfect right sweep, so it was confounding when Crichton mistimed the final flick pass, sending the Steeden spinning past Staines and into touch.

Twice Penrith had failed to capitalise on this right edge, and Croker tried to capitalise on that by attempting another 40/20. Like his skipper, he couldn’t get the angle right, which made the Panthers even hungrier for options, searching for spaces all over the park, and forcing Jurbo to make his eighth tackle, the most of any player so far. Saab, too, remained staunch as kick after kick came his way, copping the full brunt of a brutal Kikau charge as he left the ground to collect the next one from O’Sullivan, who was doing well in the no. 7 here.

With four minutes on the clock, it was paramount that Manly prevent Penrith moving beyond 12-0, especially since Edwards was showing no sign of slowing down on the returns, with 130 metres to his name already. What the visitors didn’t need was to lose Karl Lawton to an HIA after he came in low on Crichton, less than a minute after he’d left the bench. No sooner had Croker retired from the park that he was back on, as it looked like the last note for the Sea Eagles here would be a DCE kick from the forty that Edwards brought back to his forty.

Instead, the Brooky boys delivered on their very last set before the break, in their first great set piece of the season. Building on his monster night in defence, Jurbo opted to run it on the last, shaped right, and then shifted direction for Croker, who responded with a wide one to Foran as O’Sullivan tried and failed to intercept. The ex-Bulldog made good space up the left, showing it a few times before popping it out for Turbo to break the line and effect a spectacular one-hander on the ground when he was downed by a mercurial Crichton tap.

Ethan Bullemor was the beneficiary, dancing over a low tackle from Staines that mirrored and intensified Crichton’s contact, before surging over the line and rising with a roar. Garrick added the extras, Manly were only six down heading to the sheds, and galvanised to fight hard when they returned, even though these would end up being their only points of the night. Still, the game felt tantalisingly close to a genuine upset here, begging the question of what the Sea Eagles would summon when they took the park again.

DCE opted for a tricky kickoff, sending the Steeden spinning off the side of his boot to banana across the park, where it remained so low to the ground that Crichton immediately resumed Penrith’s flow simply by scooping it up, and remaining in the field of play, with the silkiest handling of the night. O’Sullivan got the formula rolling again by booting it to the left corner on the last, where Saab was swarmed by the chase, and Manly struggled to make metres on their first possession until Paseka made his toughest charge so far on the third.

Two plays into the next set, Penrith received the first penalty of the second stanza, an offside for Olakau’atu, and Kikau absolutely launched himself at the defence, compounding the grunt with a deft offload for Koroisau, who shifted it inside for Edwards to absorb the brunt of the big boppers between the twenty and the ten. Api was warming up again now, showing it from side to side before running it up the middle and laying a platform for a silky left sweep that ended with a three-man Manly pack slamming in to only just hold up Bizza on the wing.

Even so, the Sea Eagles were again working it back from their own line on play one – and then on play two, when five Panthers combined to drag Harper back over the chalk. Sensing some elasticity was needed, Croker shot a risky offload out to Foran, but it didn’t do much good, and so it took another sterling charge from Jurbo to clear the red zone. This time Paseka couldn’t supercharge the set, leaving the next second phase loose for Leota and Sorensen to clean up, a pretty stark contrast to Edwards’ terrific return on the subsequent set.

Now it was Crichton’s turn to show it from side to side and make fifteen metres up the middle, inspiring O’Sullivan to run the footy a play after that, before Sorensen cemented this as Penrith’s straightest hardest set since the break. As with Koroisau’s previous run, this middle third drive became the pivot for a sweep, and this time the Panthers broke through, thanks to a depleted Manly defence. This was poetry in motion, as Luai fed it out to Kikau, who pivoted off the outside boot and handed more than passed it back inside to his five-eighth.

The Steeden was close to the ground, but you wouldn’t have known it from the ease with which Luai scooped it up. He caught Keppie napping, and managed to slide over beneath Olakau’atu, who was having a rough start to the season, bringing the mountain men to 18, and restoring their twelve point lead, once Crichton added another two. Full credit to O’Sullivan, too, for the wide ball that set up the Luai-Kikau combo to begin with, yet another notch in his belt in Cleary’s enormous boots for this massive BlueBet game.

As if Manly’s night couldn’t get worse, DCE tried the same tricky kickoff, but sent the tip of the footy onto the touchline on the full, as Staines pulled back from it just in time, in a judgement call that was every bit as impressive as Crichton’s silky cleanup. Just like that, Penrith had virtually a full set inside the opposition twenty, which Tago started with a restless run up the left, bumping two or three defenders before Edwards absorbed pressure in the middle, and Api swung it left once again, where Kikau followed in young Izack’s footsteps.

Finally, the Panthers headed right, in an echo of their earlier aborted sweep, as Crichton delivered would would have been a miracle ball if Staines had managed to take it over. Instead, the Steeden sailed too high, only allowing him a touch in the air, which gave the defence just enough time to bump him dead. This could be a critical set for Manly, and Turbo did well to effect a shift in direction for Parker midway through, but with Spencer Leniu dumping Jurbo on his back a play later, it all felt pretty limp when DCE kicked at the forty.

Harper tried to reset the flow with a strip on To’o, but Bizza held on for dear life. Meanwhile, Edwards had already made 209 metres with half an hour left on the clock, while Leniu, still pumped from that last contact on Jake, got his best run of the night on the fourth, dodging and weaving to get O’Sullivan in position for his most dangerous bomb of the game so far – a soaring Cleary-esque effort that utterly defied Daly on the left edge before Harper only just managed to scoop it up. It was Manly’s least convincing kick return since the break.  

DCE didn’t boot the next one very far, but he made up for it with the chase and tackle, surging fifty metres to prevent Edwards doing much with the return. This was the individual effort Manly needed, keeping Penrith trapped in their own end for the first time in a while. Even with a couple of big runs, Luai only put ball to boot at the halfway mark, as Turbo collected his first kick of the night, and launched himself over the twenty, galvanised by the ripple effect of DCE’s chase, which looked set to be the biggest Manly moment since the sheds so far. 

Accordingly, the Sea Eagles now experimented with a series of more precarious passes, most notably a low ball from DCE that Olakau’atu took right on the ground before the two players clashed heads. Any attempt to elasticise was short-lived, however, as Edwards made up for Daly’s chase by summoning another rousing return, Sorensen clocked up his best metres of the match, and the mountain men got six again off a Jurbo ruck infringement to secure themselves a full set inside Manly’s twenty.

After doing so much to organise the troops in Cleary’s absence, it felt right that Koroisau was the next Panther to make the most of the faltering Manly line. Receiving a rapid play-the-ball from his no. 15, he ducked under Croker, was too quick to be halted by the lumbering girth of Keppie, and came to ground with Turbo standing over him, hands almost on his hips in resignation, so powerless was he to prevent this play. It was ruck genius, pure and simple, a mammoth one-man effort that immediately eclipsed Daly’s individual chase and tackle.

Crichton had his easiest angle of the night now, and slotted it through accordingly, while Fish was back on the park, as Leniu headed for the bench. Jaemon Salmon was also fresh off the bench, and was a bit dusty, losing the footy backwards on his first touch, but with Luai in place to scoop it up. Martin wasn’t as lucky a play later, losing possession – or so it seemed – into a two-man shot from Croker and Bullemor, but when the Panthers sent it upstairs the Bunker confirmed that the big second-rower had indeed maintained control all the way down.

O’Sullivan wasted no time booting it to the left edge when the set resumed, keen to galvanise the next bout of defence, which started with a Penrith pack surging in to try to force a Olakau’atu error. Instead, To’o was pinged for being offside, as Manly glimpsed one of their most significant bouts of position since the break, only for Croker to fumble the footy while receiving it at dummy half a play later. Nevertheless, they got one more boost when Sipley came on to give Keppie a breather, and Yeo got pinged for an accidental crusher on Garrick.

Jake leaned into this precious penalty position by feeding the footy out for Taupau to make five post-contacts, and repeated the same pass on the next tackle with a flick to brother Tom, who promptly copped one of the most bone-shattering hits of his career off some low contact from Tago. It was the first great low tackle of the year, forcing the footy free, and would have ushered in another period of sustained Penrith flow even if Jake hadn’t been pinged for an offside a play later, in what was probably the lowest point of the night for the Trbojevic boys. 

O’Sullivan capitalised with some chaos footy, booting it on the third, as Turbo chased it down with Salmon on his back, and encountered his second tough sequence in as many minutes. For the briefest of beats, it looked like he was going to shepherd the Steeden into touch, but instead Salmon applied just enough pressure for him to pop it dead – or, from some angles, actually reached his left hand around Turbo to force the contact. The Sea Eagles didn’t opt to send it upstairs, however, instead settling into the dropout with grim determination.

DCE might have sent it long, but JFH put his head down and burrowed deep into the thirty, carving out a big enough passage for Leota to break the twenty, and O’Sullivan to dig further into the line after that. The stand-in halfback now attempted another entrepreneurial play, but didn’t nail the pass, forcing Edwards to come in and scoop up the Steeden. Leota was less fortunate on the next tackle, coughing it up in the midst of a burgeoning set play to gift Manly a much-needed scrum feed to start shifting their fortunes with a quarter on the clock.

Parker was clearly hungry for position now, trying to make post-contacts even when he was brought to ground, and Foran tried to restore Turbo with some joy by feeding him a short ball that would likely have sent him through the line if Fish hadn’t stormed in for a heroic one-on-one. Olakau’atu was just as frustrated on the right, where he jumped over Luai only to find the second wave of Penrith defence waiting for him, so it all came down to a DCE chip to the right corner, where To’o got away with a knock-on during the aerial contest with Saab.

The Panthers had been lucky twice in a row, first with Salmon-Turbo, and now with Bizza-Saab – and with Saab swarmed beneath yet another O’Sullivan bomb a set later, Manly had to do something to arrest the Penrith flow now, if only by scoring a consolator before the siren. Garrick dragged three players over the forty, Daly chose to run it on the last, and Turbo found space all the way to the twenty, where he survived a Crichton ankle tap with a superb offload that momentarily opened the tantalising possibility of a Sea Eagles team try.

Instead, the hot potato of passes ended with Foran booting it too far over the right sideline, ushering in a new period of exhaustion for the Manly team – and for Turbo in particular – prompting O’Sullivan to kick his next one on the fourth. Always the warrior, however, Turbo got in place to collect it, and restore his team’s belief, but even so another staunch Penrith chase meant that Manly seemed destined to spend yet another set in their own end – that is, until Martin infringed the ruck to concede six again, and let the visitors into his territory.

Still, it took the visitors three tackles before DCE reached out his hand and planted the footy over halfway, like a echo of the second stanza try that still eluded him, while he only put boot to ball another ten metres down field. Penrith now went for a fairly methodical set, driving it deeper and deeper into the Manly defence, before Yeo broke it open by clearing halfway and coming to ground at the thirty. DCE responded with one of his most elastic runs at the start of the next set, curving away from several tacklers like a line of flight from the game itself.

Daly continued to shine at the end of the set, timing his next kick perfectly to sit up just in goal, where Edwards took it on his knees as Saab slammed in to prevent him returning to the field of play. Although he struck it with all his might, Edwards didn’t send the Steeden far beyond his forty, as Manly settled into their last great burst of position – and DCE’s burst of brilliance came to an end when he was cleaned up by Edwards on the right edge. A minute into his first-grade debut, Tolu Koula now tried to mirror Daly with a charge up the right too.

It was a decent effort, and Sipley followed with a run up the middle, but the set was falling apart, so it felt almost inevitable when Foran was brought to ground by a rolling Manly pack that ended with Edwards standing in his way, and coming full circle after conceding the dropout, as the veteran Eagle tried to cascade over on the left wing. Something deflated in the Sea Eagles after this, especially since Penrith got yet another letoff when the refs didn’t notice Yeo losing the footy on the ground after another tackle-busting charge up the middle.

After bouncing back from conceding the dropout, and booting an average dropout kick, Edwards saved his best chase for last, taking Foran’s next bomb on the full, swivelling away from every defender, and making his way back to the forty, where DCE only just managed to hold him up. Staines continued that momentum to halfway, Fish broke the forty, Salmon arrived at the brink of the red zone, and all Penrith’s focus condensed now, as Yeo finished this escalation by popping it out to O’Sullivan, who saved his best ball of the night for last.

It was a scintillating pass, lasting the mercurial instant needed to capitalise on a beautiful run from Martin, who collected the footy, hit the hole, and was moving too fast by the time Turbo tried to down him with an ankle tap. Crichton might have swung his last one away to the left, but this game had been all Penrith, who’d reprised the elegance of late 2021 without even having Cleary on the park, made it eighteen consecutive wins at BlueBet, contained Turbo with aplomb, and ultimately treated this like a trial match, a warmup in front of 16 901 fans.

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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