Penrith were looking to make it six in a row in 2022, and 20 unbeaten games at the foot of the mountains, when they rocked up to host Brisbane on Friday night. The home crowd were galvanised by Ivan and Nathan Cleary’s big contracts this week, while the small away crowd were probably wondering whether Kevin and Billy could ever rival them on the father-son front. Cleary and Dylan Edwards had each kicked two-point field goals against the Broncos last year, and tonight’s game was even more entertaining by the time we reached stanza two.
On the other side of the Steeden, the Broncos were suffering big time with a Payne Haas suspension, and had Herbie Farnworth off the park as well, while Delouise Hoeter was in the starting thirteen for a blast from the past. Yet they were also galvanised from their spectacular final minutes against the Roosters last week, with all eyes on Corey Oates following a hat trick that had cemented his late career comeback on the wing, while Adam Reynolds had had his fair share of spectacular Good Friday moments, and successful field goals, with South Sydney.
From the outset, it was clear that Penrith had launched into the game at peak volatility, but the Broncos managed to build on a couple of uncharacteristic Panthers errors for an early Tesi Niu try, off one of many scintillating Reyno-Staggs combos up the right edge. That just made it all the more agonising when Niu was injured at the end of the first forty, although the Broncs had another major asset in their backline with Selwyn Cobbo, who had a watershed game tonight, taking bomb after bomb with aplomb as Cleary mercilessly hammered his corner.
Add to that two bombed tries for Penrith, and excellent early completions for Brisbane, and this was a surprisingly tight game, right down to a double slap that saw both Edwards and Keenan Palasia binned at the 47th minute. Still, there had been warning signs, including terrific bench work from Jaeman Salmon, Spencer Leniu and Scott Sorensen, who scored a superb try before the break, so it was only a matter of time before Cleary’s full footy genius came to the fore, bringing the Panthers into first gear for an utterly scintillating final thirty minutes.
They scored five tries during this period, going from ladder-toppers to pure entertainers, as Cleary delivered as pure and refined a vision as anything in his career. A pitch-perfect boot to the left wing, in particular, must have sent shivers down the spines of the Penrith faithful, recalling Cooper Cronk’s iconic sinew-syncing speech about the 2012 Origin decider, as the stadium basked in the focus and dexterity of a future immortal. With that ability on display, Reynolds did well to go kick for kick, even if he didn’t quite achieve the same football poetry.
Cleary sent the kickoff to the left corner, and the Broncos responded by shifting it all the way to the other side of the park on tackle two, as if countering Nathan’s will from the very outset. Meanwhile Charlie Staines got his men rolling with an early offload to Jarome Luai, while Viliame Kikau came up with an even more enterprising second phase effort up the left edge, where he rolled more than passed it back to Apisai Koroisau. A play later, Izack Tago would have nabbed an assist on the first kick if he hadn’t weighted it just a little hard off the boot.
Even so, Cleary almost got there in time for a try at the death, but the Steeden had just hit the dead ball line by the time he got hands to it. The Broncos didn’t have time to feel relieved, though, as Reyno hit back on the next set with a deft chip to the left edge, before jumping back into the defensive line as James Fisher-Harris made the most metres of any big bopper so far to set up the next kick to the corner, before Brisbane struggled again to break their own thirty. In contrast to the ebbs and flows of Souths-Dogs, this was already at peak volatility.
Reynolds sent his next one to the right, slotting the Steeden over the sideline a second after it touched the turf, in a masterclass of ball control that steeled Brisbane for the next Penrith onslaught. Luai wasted no time making metres, May plunged into the defence for five post-contacts, and Fish stood for an age in a Reyno-led tackle before Cleary hoisted it high, and Selwyn Cobbo somehow took it clean with three Panthers piling onto him. Both outfits had gone three completed sets, but there was already fifty metres between them – and growing.
Reyno’s next kick ricocheted off the ref, but Luai still read it beautifully, diving on the footy and condensing the start of the last Penrith set to build big May metres up the left edge. Already, Brisbane were falling off tackles, so they were lucky not to let through a Cleary dummy-and-run on play three, and even luckier when Tago failed to find space on the short side to put May across for the first four. Such a big letoff was almost unbelievable given the plosive pace of this opening, so it was a dream come true when Brisbane got the first penalty.
It came when Luai was called offside within the ten, bumping the Broncos into Penrith territory for the first time, although they didn’t make much more headway on the first couple of tackles than they had at the other end of the field, tempting Reynolds into some eyes-up footy with an early kick that forced May to bump it into touch as he copped a head tap from Jordan Riki. Brisbane had a dropout, but making their way to the line was no simple task in this game, even with a Reyno cut-out to Kotoni Staggs, so the next play was absolute magic.
Running like his life depended on it, Staggs balanced brute strength with balletic balance to get on the outside of Tago, bump off Luai and flick a one-hander back inside for Niu to get over the line with Kikau on his back. It was heroic footy, pure and simple, putting the Broncos six ahead as Reynolds bookended it by booting through the two from right in front. Now they had to propel that energy back into a restart from their own line, or at least break into Penrith territory, but Reyno just ended up with a kick from his forty, making an easy take for Edwards.
Still, this had been a resounding opening for the hosts, and had dented the scintillating speed of the mountain men, who took a further hit when Liam Martin jumped out of the action to get some leg attention in backplay. Meanwhile, Cobbo came up with another epic take on the chalk, Walters was at the forty by tackle three, and Reyno finally got his first kick over halfway off a regular set, making this the best possible time for Penrith to get the first restart of the night, off a Kobe Hetherington ruck infringement, in order to recover that early acceleration.
They were inside the ten by tackle four, where Cobbo compounded his terrific service under the high ball by smothering May just as he was receiving what seemed like a certain assist from Kikau. In what was possibly the blandest end to a Penrith set so far, Cleary had to rely on a dropout, sending the grubber long and low for Staggs to smash into touch before Reynolds asserted himself in the battle of the boot with a bullet ball off the dropout, drilling it over the sideline with such accuracy that Stephen Crichton never had a chance of getting it.
In another remarkable turnaround, then, Brisbane had gone from a dropout to a scrum feed, as Corey Jensen made twenty metres on the fourth, giving Reynolds time to execute a beautiful bomb for Cobbo, who was every bit as good beneath his own ball as the Panthers’, even if a Penrith pack wrapped him up before he could do anything with it. Crichton was raring to break through the line midway through the next set and Luai chipped a nice one down the left edge, but with Cobbo bringing it back there was no doubt who had the flow.
That flow propelled the Broncos into their first sweep across the defence since their opening set, this time from left to right, and once again the Panthers got six again just when their rhythm was starting to flag, off a ruck error from Jensen, who was struggling after a big hit on Staines. This time the result was more predictable, as the mountain men made good on their augmented position pretty quickly, with a clinical left edge play that saw Luai pivot off the left boot and straighten the attack to dispose of both Staggs and Niu for the next four-pointer.
Shutting down the Broncos’ assister and scorer felt like an important symbolic gesture here, as a terrific Cleary kick levelled the score. Cleary followed up with his most dangerous floater, a soaring bomb that Cobbo cleaned up with showing any sign of having been targeted all night. Yet Brisbane got another letoff pretty quickly, when the flow overtook Staines and tempted him into stepping over the footy rather than playing it properly. The visitors moved methodically up the park, and Niu took on kicking duties, booting it deep into the right corner.
This almost became the second great moment of the night for Staggs, who delivered a second barnstorming run to surge past May in goal, get both hands on the Steeden, and almost put it down clean, only to drop it at the last minute, gifting Penrith something that nobody would have predicted they’d need at this moment in the match – a letoff. Cleary sent the next one high and short, Oates took it clean in the midst of Panthers traffic, and the Broncos got another blow when Rhys Kennedy offloaded straight to Koroisau for another big Penrith set.
With a pair of ruck infringements from Ryan James and Jake Turpin, the Broncos had lost all the residual rhythm of Staggs’ second run, and yet this galvanised them into some of their toughest goal line defence of the first stanza, starting with a desperate Turpin ankle tap on Cleary. Koroisau almost saved the day with a daring short-range cut-out pass across the chest of Edwards, but the Bunker footage only confirmed that Crichton had knocked it forward by the time that Staines dove onto it and crossed over on the wing into a mad tackle from Oates.
This was staunch defence, and amped up the Broncos on their next set, as Reyno and then Riki poured into the Panthers up the right edge, tempting a flop from Luai to get themselves a set from the forty. They elasticised out to the left just as quickly, where Oates took a cut-out ball from Walters, stayed in play under the impact of a leg tackle from Staines, and actually got the Steeden back in field, but not without his ball carrying arm making contact with the turf, getting Penrith yet another shot at the Brisbane line as the thirty minute mark arrived.
An illegal strip from Kurt Capewell ushered in one of Penrith’s longest stints on the chalk – and the Broncos’ most heroic period of defence so far, including a high shot from Staggs on Tago that went unnoticed, and one of the best visions of Walters’ career, as he got down on his knees to shield a Cleary grubber that looked set to produce a dropout for all money. Instead, Cleary had to use his speed to prevent a dropout, surging in for his best run so far to bump the ball into touch and momentarily shut down an incredible Brisbane left edge surge.
It started with another battling run from Staggs, who got Cobbo in place for a clutch kick from the sideline that Niu would have still reached before Cleary if a sudden hamstring issue hadn’t cost him a critical three paces. He came off the park a moment later, in a massive blow for the Broncos, and hadn’t even reached the sheds as Penrith got back on the front foot with a Teui Robati offside inside the ten, then scored their next try in the most spectacular way, as Scott Sorensen built on 105 run metres off the bench with the third and best try of his career.
It came out of nowhere, as he received a wide ball from Isaah Yeo, and suddenly seemed to turn into Cleary or Luai, pivoting off the left boot, turning Riki inside out, and building a sudden speed that belied his towering frame, before rising from the ground with a roar that gathered the entire home crowd into a wave of pure Penrith adrenalin. With that kind of noise behind him, and a relatively easy angle, Cleary was always going to add the conversion, so Brisbane had to stay strong, not concede points, and remember their best sequences now.
To their credit, they didn’t falter during the last two minutes, partly because Cobbo survived yet another Luai bomb at the end of the restart, although they had their work cut out for them against a Penrith outfit with a 41-game winning streak when they’ve led at half time. Spencer Leniu didn’t waste any time getting the back forty going with a tough opening charge, while Cleary’s first kick back was a beauty, soaring so high and floating so long that Cobbo falconed it into himself before Hoeter scooted around to clean it up and get the set rolling.
Reyno went bomb-for-bomb at the end of this first Brisbane set, but there was no chase to prevent Edwards taking it within his ten and making another fifteen on the run. Leniu got six again on his next carry, and Koroisau ducked through Turpin and James a second later, as the Panthers suddenly accelerated back into the sublime flow of their opening quarter, only for the speed to overtake them. Api shifted it across to Edwards, who came to ground in the ten, and offloaded for Cleary, who glimpsed space, but was shut down just as quick by Reynolds.
Even then, the Panthers had enough speed behind them to score here, so it was agonising when Kikau put down the Luai pass that was guaranteed to put him across on the left. That made it two bombed tries from the mountain men, and a fresh burst of energy for Brisbane, who forced Cleary to bomb from just within his own end on the next set, and then survived the intimidating height of the kick with another superb take from Cobbo. Reyno didn’t boost it as high on the next set, but he didn’t need to, since his timing and position was perfect here.
The footy landed two metres out for the line, where Staines fell back over the chalk to collect it, meaning the chase didn’t have to do all that much to secure the dropout. Cleary booted it long, but with two straight restarts the Broncos were on the line with six tackles to go, as Reyno sent it out for Walters on the left, where Cleary did well to shut down the play, as it all ended in the worst possible way for the Suncorp boys – with a lost ball on tackle two, a flop from Corey Paix, and the question of punches from both sides as a full-on fracas got going.
The replay showed that Palasia and Edwards had both made open-hand strikes, and with both men sent to the bin it was twelve on twelve. While the blow was arguably bigger for Penrith with their fullback off the field, you couldn’t underestimate Palasia’s absence with Haas already on the sidelines. This was possibly the key pressure point of the game, volatile enough for both sides to have a shot at getting the upper hand if they took the initiative now. The Panthers had the first carry, and accelerated upfield on good runs from Kikau and Leniu.
Cleary capped it off with a clinical chip down the left, getting his men a dropout in the process, and carried it up the same edge two tackles into the repeat set. Just as quick, Penrith shifted back to the right, where Oates read a Jaemon Salmon charge brilliantly, wrapping himself around the 17’s ankles before the mountain men lost the footy a tackle later. Paix channelled that defensive aggression into a sharp charge up the middle, and Reyno poured the same energy into the kick, although the Panthers survived with flair, still every bit as supercharged.
Koroisau got Cleary through the line two tackles into the set, and while the Broncos plugged the gap just in time, they didn’t survive the next rapid shift to the right, where a Luai run, Sorensen pass and Martin wide ball got Staines just enough space to make good on his earlier crossover on the wing, disposing of ex-teammate Capewell for good measure. Cleary couldn’t nab the sideline kick, but this was still a critical consolidator for Penrith, who had 72% of territory since the break, and 348 run metres to 188 from the Broncos, who had to dig in now.
Salmon continued to deliver with big metres up the right halfway through the restart, and Sorensen backed himself a bit further infield a tackle later, when he broke through the line, came down at the ten, and got Cleary in place for an absolutely prodigious boot to the left sideline. Like clockwork, the footy found May without any room for error, bouncing off the turf a metre in field and straight into the young winger’s left hand, giving him time to scoot around a desperate ankle tap from Cobbo and set up Cleary for his easiest kick of the game.
There’s been talk over the last few weeks of Cleary becoming one of the all-time greats, and it’s hard to think of any immortal nailing a better kick than this silky and sinuous reading of the precise slipperiness and grease of the turf. It was the closest footy comes to ballet, pure abstract vision in space, confirming that Penrith had well and truly transcended the brief struggle of the first forty and were now playing for pure entertainment, wrapped up in their own splendid sense of flow. In just a couple of minutes, they’d showed why they were no. 1.
Luai’s next kick to the left was a beautiful echo and epilogue to Cleary’s vision, and while it didn’t produce a try then and there, it was energetic enough to propel a Penrith pack into dragging Cobbo head first across the chalk as the two slappers returned to the park. By the time Martin poured through the line on the right a few plays later, the try barely felt like an event, and more like another inevitable iteration of this peak Penrith flow, oblivious to Walters’ efforts to shut it down, and dependent on yet another scintillating setup from Yeo.
The goal now for Brisbane, on the cusp of the final quarter, was to prevent Penrith from turning this into a mere Harlem Globetrotters display of dexterity – to keep it a legitimate contest. Cleary added the next kick, bringing the mountain men to 28-6, while Reyno’s next kick at least reached the Penrith line, although it only took the Panthers a single tackle to break their thirty. From there, they barged it up the right edge for a few plays, before Cleary showed it and made space up the left, where Staggs finally forced an error from the hosts.
Cobbo may have made a half break, and Reynolds might have shaped a sharp bomb from thirty-five out, but the Panthers never broke a sweat, as the gap between the two teams continued to widen, removing most of the tension, although the compensation came from the excitement of seeing what the mountain men would come up with next. Cleary’s boot just got better and better, as he complemented his sublime assist for May with a sixty metre 40/10 to the same part of the park, getting his men yet another full set on the Brisbane line.
By this stage, there was no shame for Brisbane in not being able to withstand perfect Penrith football, so it was an added bonus when Oates intercepted Cleary’s next pass, only two tackles into the close-range set, before Staggs broke through the line and the visitors got an unexpected pair of restarts (offside from Salmon, ruck error from Fish). Kotoni now made good on the break, and his bundle of left edge runs, by chasing down a pinpoint Reynolds kick to score a precious Brisbane try, making it a sixteen point game when Reyno added the two.
In the midst of so much Penrith cockiness, it had been moving to see Cleary quickly check in on Walters before copping a report for a hip-drop, while the sheer improbability of this last Brisbane try was a tribute to how much Reyno can do with the boot (and the sheer plosive power of Staggs’ footwork) against even the most dramatic odds. That late Broncos flow continued on their next carry, when they received another restart, and again Reynolds delivered the right kick, driving it low and relying on Hoeter to bump Edwards over the line.
An unforced error from Riki prevented the Broncos capitalising here, and got the Panthers seven tackles, which Edwards started with a strong carry to muscle his way back from conceding the aborted dropout. Fish plunged up the middle two tackles later, reaching the ten and getting his men six again in the pocess, before Leniu built on all that rapid acceleration by slamming down beneath the posts, and rising to his feet so amped up that the try seemed to usher in a new superhuman standard for Penrith, who made it a cool 34 with Cleary’s kick.
Full credit to Luai too, who got Leniu in position by withstanding a big tackle (and hair pull) from Hetherington, who was also the main casualty of big Spencer’s crossover. No surprise that Leniu took the first run on the restart, nor that he barged into three Broncos for ten post-contacts on tackle four. Oates was terrific under Cleary’s next kick, leaning forward to catch it, and then leaning into that same rhythm to fuel his return. Meanwhile, Edwards was off the park for the last couple of minutes, as Martin returned from the bench for a final showing.
A wide ball from Reynolds gave Staggs more room to move up the right midway through the next set, but he only made it to the ten, while Penrith won the only challenge of the night to show that Salmon had lost the footy backwards and then regathered it after Martin played at a Reyno kick to the left corner. It wasn’t an intuitive decision from the replay, and was a momentum-killer five minutes out from the end, so it was critical that the Panthers conclude on the same entertaining note now – and that the Broncos continue to withstand them.
The mountain men played around on the left edge at the end of the next set, as the ball moved through half the team before it found the other side of the park, where a set restart turned this the start of a three minute finale on the Brisbane line. Cobbo cleaned up Staines at the end of a fractured right sweep, and even the slightest of dabs from Cleary carried a stroke of genius now, ricocheting gently off the left padding and forcing Selwyn to bump it into touch from the try line, before Tago made it back-to-back dropouts with a sharp kick to the left wing.
Reynolds went short with the dropout but sent it over the sideline on the full, and in one last alpha display the Panthers chose to run at the line, rather than taking the two. They got six again early in the set, and it all ended as it had to end – with a reprise of the sublime Cleary-May combo, as halfback booted it to the left, and winger put it down, before it was rebranded a Tago penalty try. Footy just doesn’t get better than this, and it’s amazing to think where the mountain men can go with this flow with another two thirds of the season ahead of them.