ROUND 7: Penrith Panthers v. Canberra Raiders (BlueBet Stadium, 24/4/22, 36-6)

If Parra got a landslide over Newcastle, then it was carnage when Penrith hosted Canberra at the foot of the mountains on Saturday night. The Panthers were sitting on 20 straight home wins, and had last succumbed at BlueBet to the 2019 Raiders, so they were pumped for some of the most plosive footy of the season so far. Time and again, over the first half, they bounced back from Canberra’s heroic efforts to keep them out, self-correcting and congealing until they reached a new flow in the back forty, achieving something close to football perfection.

By the sixty-fifth minute, the Raiders had 662 run metres to a whopping 1263 from the chocolate soldiers, and 23 to 83 tackles in the opposition half, 21 of which had been made before the 24th minute. By the end of the match, Penrith had clocked up 1751 to 747 run metres,  516 to 259 post-contacts and 281 to 40 run metres, most of which came up the middle, since they barely had to activate their signature left sweep until the last quarter of the game. With that kind of possession and position, Canberra simply had to survive.

To their credit, the visitors levelled the score at the eighteenth minute, and kept Penrith to a single-digit lead until the 65th minute, but from there the board started to reflect the massive disparity in territory and time, as the mountain men put down four tries in quick succession to come away with a thirty point win. It was a historic accumulation of possession and position, and despite their courage in countering it, the Raiders will likely be haunted by this loss for some time, right down to the mock Viking claps that peppered the back quarter.

Matt Eisenhuth took the first hit-up, and James Fisher-Harris and Viliame Kikau finished with big metres in his wake, before Jordan Rapana got down to his knees to take Nathan Cleary’s bomb on the full for his first catch in the no. 1 jersey this afternoon. Apisai Koroisau had also taken two runs in that first set, putting pressure on the Raiders to make decent position for their first carry, but Josh Papalii couldn’t get away the offload on the penultimate play, so Jack Wighton hoisted it high from the left edge, and Charlie Staines proved up to the task.

Already the match was at fever pitch, as Cleary booted it to the same spot for his second bomb, and then joined a three-man pack to prevent Joe Tapine making metres midway through the next Canberra set. Brad Schneider sent it shallow to the right corner, Dylan Edwards caught it on the run, and Jarome Luai spread it left on the last, where Taylan May failed to kick it through a sea of Raiders, producing the first fleeting breathing-space before Kikai monstered Schneider with a tackle that cost the visitors four or five metres.

Edwards was just as confident fielding the kick on the other side of the park, and while Wighton’s kick reached him deep in the corner, the Panthers were back at the halfway line by tackle three, thanks to a tough run from Isaah Yeo, who also won the first penalty of the game when Papalii found himself offside within the ten. Fish played it thirty-five out from the Canberra line, the mountain men bounced back from an aborted shortside play, Edwards arrived five out, and some crowding from Hudson Young made it a fresh set on the chalk.

Eisenhuth now got six again in a contest with Tapine in tackle one, Yeo almost busted through three defenders to score beside the right post, and Cleary shifted it left for Kikau, only for Schneider to get his own back with a David-on-Goliath to stop big Billy in his tracks. Yeo took another shot on play five, so it all came down to a Cleary-catalysed right sweep that ended with Staines being dragged into touch as the whistle blew out to signal another Canberra offside play, this time from Matthew Timoko, as the tackle count restarted once again.

Penrith had spent so much time on the Raiders’ line that they needed to score now or else concede the momentum back to the green machine. For a moment, it looked like Kikau might have the bone-crushing speed to break through on his second charge up the left, but Schneider got the better of this contest too, combining with Starling to rattle the footy free. Fish and Koroisai invoked Kikau’s previous effort on Schneider by dragging Starling back five metres midway through the set, though, while Penrith started again halfway up the park.

Just like that, the mountain men had eclipsed the Kikau error, as Cleary ended with a mid-range chip to the right, where Martin popped it back for Yeo to shift on to Edwards, who in turn delivered a Hail Mary pass, arcing the ball backwards over his head for Fish to scoop up and Xavier Savage to knock down for yet another Penrith set in the twenty. Fish drove Corey Harawira-Naera fifteen metres back, and Eisenhuth popped some second phase back for Koroisau, who started a tryscoring sweep with terrific dummy half vision a few plays later.

Drawing in three Canberra defenders, he flicked it out to Fish, who shifted it to Cleary, who in turn tapped it on for Edwards to hold up the line with a subliminal dummy before assisting Stephen Crichton to curve around and score ten metres in field, setting up Cleary for an easy conversion. It had taken them most of the first quarter but the Panthers had delivered, and yet that just galvanised Canberra into matching them on the board when Edwards and Eisenhuth risked letting the dropoff hit touch, only for it to bounce half a metre inside.

Instead of a dropout, the Raiders had a full set in the opposition half, and then inside the twenty when Luai got done for a dangerous tackle on Tapine, who used the contact to steel himself into the first and only try for Canberra a few plays later. Receiving a short ball from Starling, he plunged over beside the left post, making the most of a Penrith forward pack who were momentarily exhausted by a massive Harawira-Naera charge the play before. Changing his line, he got outside Koroisau, hit the gap perfectly, and defied Fish to get ball to ground.

Schneider added the extras, and the Raiders had scored off an uncharacteristic error from Penrith, whose evening got harder (relatively speaking) as the second quarter arrived. Staines made an error, before an offside from Crichton and a ruck error from Edwards meant it was Canberra’s turn to camp out on the Panthers’ line. The big men now stepped up, as Adam Elliott charged through Fish, who could only get a hand to him as Edwards slammed on top, and CHN ended a rapid right sweep by planting the fend of the night on Izack Tago.

Yet in a heroic David-on-Goliath effort, Tago survived the contact and spearheaded a pack effort that put CNH into touch, steeling Penrith for another accelerated attack when Papalii infringed the ruck on the next set. For the first time, however, their speed overtook them, as Tago shaped for a flick pass back to Luai out on the left edge, but succumbed in turn to a Canberra pack that was held to have forced a knock-on – a call that remained even when Cleary sent it up for conclusive counter-footage that was somehow deemed inconclusive.

This was a massive letoff for the Raiders, and while Schneider booted it hard and fast on the last to make as much position as possible, the Panthers never missed a beat, as Edwards brought it back ten metres, and big Corey stripped the footy a second after the ref called held. Scott Sorensen was back at the ten on the penultimate play, driving a hard line on the right before Cleary chipped to the left, where Semi Valemei tapped the ball into touch with one boot on the line, coming agonisingly close to a twenty-metre tap rather than a dropout.

If Canberra hadn’t really dented the Penrith momentum, they’d stopped it cresting, and their line speed reached a new high on this set, disrupting a right sweep when Timoko jammed hard on Edwards, and Savage did the same to ricochet a promising underarm flick from Crichton over Staines’ head and into touch. It was the worst possible time for Sutton to compound his crowding penalty with an obstruction on the attack, as the Panthers started once again from the thirty, and Soni Luke came on to give Koroisau a stint on the bench.

He almost crashed over out of dummy half, in one of his first touches in the NRL, before Brad Horsburgh tapped a crafty Luai grubber into touch to concede yet another bout of close-range attack. The Panthers had 40 tackles in the opposition half, to Canberra’s 21, and yet they’d only scored a single try as Wighton booted through the dropout. That sheer survival was gradually building momentum for the Raiders, who looked like they might have a distant shot at taking control of the game if they could prevent a try and get back down their end.

At this very moment, however, the Panthers roared, as Luke followed his near-try with some superb service at dummy half, drifting infield to open up a gap that Yeo pushed into as soon as he got hands to the ball. It was a perfect linkup between veteran and young gun, restoring Penrith’s six point lead when Cleary booted through the two from right in front. A strip from Schneider made it an augmented restart, so it was no surprise when the Panthers sent a supposed Spencier Leniu knock-on upstairs, hoping for a better result this time around.

The result was just as counter-intuitive as the last challenge, since while Horsburgh made incidental contact with the Steeden, it didn’t really look like the strip the Bunker claimed. It was a sign of respect when Cleary opted to take the two, before booting through one of his biggest bombs so far at the end of the restart, putting the Raiders under enough pressure for Staines to almost drag Timoko into touch. True to the defensive courage of this first half, Canberra kept it 14-6 to the break, as the light turned golden at the foot of the mountains.

When leading at half time the Panthers have won 42 games straight, so the Raiders had a job on their hands when they returned from the sheds. Papalii took the first hit-up, Wighton booted it high from the forty metre line and May almost broke through Tapine and CHN. A three-man pack did well to hold up Luai, but even so Cleary kicked it on the Canberra thirty, forcing Rapana to bring all his agility to bear to take it in the midst of a tough Kikau contest.

It took a toll on his right knee, which was already strapped, and he was limping in backplay as the Raiders drove it back up the park – although not that far back, since Wighton took his next kick about the same place Cleary had booted his last. Still, Rapana was fine to field Cleary’s next one, a sharp bomb to the right, as this second stanza started to turn into a set-for-set arm wrestle, with Edwards doing well to reach around and take one of Wighton’s biggest boots so far. Yet this was exactly the kind of false lull when the Panthers deliver their magic.

Sure enough, Kikau put even more pressure on Rapana beneath Cleary’s next kick, this time with help from Luai, and together they ensured the Canberra backliner couldn’t clean it up. The Steeden bounced out, where Luai offloaded on his back for May to cross on the left wing, but the replay confirmed what had been pretty intuitive in real time, even in the midst of such a complex sequence – that Kikau had knocked the footy forward into Rapana. This was the Raiders’ first chance since the break, and yet they couldn’t muster a decisive play.

If anything, this sequence just gave Kikau a chance to shine with a monster effort on Wighton that supercharged May, already pumped from his almost-try, into a huge run on play one of the next set. Once again, though, Canberra survived, in one of their clutchiest periods of defence since the break, thanks to some brilliant eyes-up footy from Schneider, who took a dangerous Cleary grubber on the bounce to avoid the dropout, a few tackles after Luke had set his eyes on a second dummy half charge, and had very nearly made the chalk.

Nevertheless, the Raiders really struggled to move out of their own end, as the Panthers continued to suffocate them in slow motion. Papalii was at 113 run metres, but apart from that the top tally was all Penrith, with Tago at 80, Leniu at 92, May at 107 and Edwards at a whopping 149. Cleary took a run three plays into the next set, elasticising the attack on the left enough for Kikau to kick for himself, and then come in hard to win the next battle with Rapana, who was left clutching his neck in pain as Harry Rushton made his debut in green.

There was no question of a crusher as Kikau and Sorensen combined to drive Valemei right back to the chalk, and Rushton entered first-grade by fielding a massive three-man pack to clear the ten, only for Penrith to continue unabated, culminating one of their best attacking sets of the year by forcing Wighton to take the kick a mere six metres out. With so much position it was extraordinary that the mountain men were only single digits ahead, as Rapana survived the next contest and prevented Kikau from crossing over for a second time.  

The Raiders got a pair of minor victories now, first when Tapine broke the thirty and then when they kept Penrith in their own end for the opening of the next set, but even then the hosts were at the ten by the final play, when Crichton extemporised with a grubber that ricocheted off Timoko before Rushton saved the day by collecting it half a metre out from the chalk. It was agonising, then, when Savage lost the footy a play later, and with Penrith packing the scrum from the twenty, Canberra stared down their biggest challenge of the night.

They’d spent much of the game defending their line, but the six-metre kick, combined with the brief surge of this last set, made another Penrith try unthinkable now – and their defence had never been tougher than when Timoko reached out an arm to pull Crichton boot-first to ground, as Wighton got underneath, Young joined him, and Savage slammed on top for an absolutely epic team effort that still wasn’t quite good enough to disrupt Crichton’s underlying calm, which saw him ground the Steeden in the eye of that massive storm.

If this had been the critical moment for the Raiders, then it was the crucial try for the Panthers, who not only reached a double-digit lead despite Cleary’s missed conversion, but in one superb play had showed how beautifully they could wrest order and structure from one of the biggest arm-wrestles (and one of the most heroic defensive contests) of the year. No surprise, then, that they found their flow on the restart, when Crichton burst straight past Timoko and Savage to go back-to-back on the cusp of the final quarter.

He didn’t actually ground the footy, but there was enough evidence, in the modern NRL, for the Bunker to deem it a penalty try, putting the Panthers quadruple Canberra as Cleary booted another two into the western Sydney sunset. Full credit to Cleary, too, for the kick that set it all up, while the restart felt like the first Penrith set of the night, so geed up were the forwards as they laid the platform. Rapana knocked on the bomb, the home crowd started a mocking Viking clap, the Panthers hit the middle, and Luai failed to milk a penalty out left.

The set came apart a bit here, so it felt like Liam Martin was trying to restore those more promising opening runs when he opted to take it up the middle on the last, although the Canberra letoff didn’t last long when Schneider failed to rein in a poor pass from Tapine midway through the next set. The mock Viking clap was going again as Tago drove it up the left and withstood a big Raiders pack to remain in field, reclaiming this side of the park after Luai’s messy milking, before Martin got his midfield run out of the way on tackle two.

It ended just as poorly as his last, however, with a knock-on that gave Canberra another chance to get out of their own end. They were sitting at 662 run metres to 1263, and 83 to 23 tackles in the opposition half (61 to 2 since the 24th minute), so it was about survival now, and not permitting Penrith to pile on too many points. A moment later, Starling was ordered from the park for medical attention after what seemed like fairly benign low contact on Martin, and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad trotted off the bench as Elliott got done for a marginal escort.

It was barely eventful any more when Cleary delivered another deft chip that Rapana was forced to tap into touch for the dropout, nor when Cleary collected the ricochet to get his men six again – and hardly eventful even when May smashed through on the left edge for his eighth try in only five games, since the Panthers were now pure football perfection, an attacking machine that was accumulating position and points simply because it was in their nature to do so, rather than fielding any meaningful competition or opposition.

As Cleary booted through another two from the sideline, it was surreal to think that there were ever any concerns about how the club might go without Brian To’o – and scary to think what they’ll be able to achieve when Bizza returns from the sideline. Edwards chipped at the end of the restart, Nick Cotric took it into touch, and the cycle continued, as Koroisau and Yeo continued to exhaust the Canberra forwards, and Cleary drove it deep into the left line on the last, building enough space for Kikau to get his try after all, and in the easiest manner.

All he had to do was regather a slight bobble and dance over a Schneider ankle tap to twist and slam through Rapana at the death, winning the game-long battle with the Raiders fullback to bring Penrith to sextuple Canberra once Cleary slotted through yet another sideline conversion. Finally, the scoreline was starting to reflect the enormous weight of the Panthers’ position and possession, while the kickoff went out on the full as another mock Viking clap did the rounds of BlueBet Stadium.

No sooner had Edwards lost the ball at the end of the restart than Rushton did the same. Penrith packed the scrum, Cleary drove it as deep as possible into the left, and then flicked it on to Luai, who dummied a couple of times, considered shifting it on for May and then, perhaps fuelled by the frustration of not getting that penalty on the left a few plays before, slammed over himself to reclaim that edge of the park as his own – all for the try to be called back in the name of a Tago obstruction.

Yet this was small solace for a Canberra outfit that, despite their courage, had categorically capitulated to a historic accumulation of position and possession in the second stanza. Cleary missed the final field goal and the mock Viking claps spilled into the most emotional finale all year, as a Wighton-Edwards fracas brought in players from both sides, eventually dissipating, but still charged with adrenalin as they prepare to face the Titans and Warriors next week.

About Billy Stevenson (692 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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