ROUND 12: Penrith Panthers v. North Queensland Cowboys (BlueBet Stadium, 27/5/22, 22-0)

Friday night’s game at BlueBet might have started out with some volatile and visceral sequences, but gradually turned into one of the great footy grinds of the 2022 season. While North Queensland may have opened with an incredible defensive statement, defending 22 runs and holding up four tries to keep out an early Penrith surge, they wouldn’t score a single point at the foot of the mountains, while the mountain men seemed demotivated by this drab opposition, and only scored a solitary try in the back forty for a fairly modest 22-0 victory.

Nathan Cleary took the kickoff, and Chad Townsend wasted no time shifting it out to the right, where Val Holmes almost broke through the line before coming down only five metres shy of halfway. Townsend was just outside the red zone when he kicked to the right corner, as the Panthers set in to work it back from their own ten. Moses Leota got them rolling with a strong charge up the middle on the third, winning a leg pull penalty from Reuben Cotter, and just like that Penrith had a full set in the Cowboys’ end, and were in the twenty by tackle three.

They only needed one more play to utterly eclipse the spectacle of North Queensland’s opening set, as Apisai Koroisau culminated a terrific opening set by glancing left, darting right, making to dig into the line, and popping a no-looker across to Isaah Yeo, who only had to dance over a Tom Gilbert ankle tap set up Cleary for the easiest kick of the night. The Panthers were over a point per minute, setting the stage for a total domination of the visitors, as Leota had the first play of the restart, and Brian To’o followed with good metres in his wake.

Even without a penalty, they were still deep into Cowboys territory by the time that Cleary opted to boot it early, trapping North Queensland on their own line – until Holmes reprised that previous burst of energy up the left with an even better effort on the right, making it all the way inside Penrith’s zone before he was finally brought to ground by a desperate Izack Tago tackle. This was a superb counter-attack, so it was agonising when Coen Hess lost the footy in the midst of an offload, putting the onus back on the hosts to amp it all up again.

Cleary ended the next set with his first great kick of the night – a soaring bomb, so high and fast that Townsend never had a chance of getting it, meaning this would have been an easy try for Viliame Kikau if Tago hadn’t got pinged for high contact, a pretty rough call given that it was all happening in the air, Townsend had already make a play at the footy, and the replay looked more like chest on shoulder action anyway. Kikau took out his frustration with a bone-rattling hit on Townsend, slamming him to ground to dishevel the end of the following set.

That one-man statement was almost as good as a try, putting the Panthers back on the front foot by the time Jarome Luai replicated Cleary’s bomb to the right, where Townsend now became the man to leak the penalty, with an escorts that got the mountain men their first full set in the opposition twenty. Koroisau almost busted through on the left, Dylan Edwards was only just contained beside the right post, James Fisher-Harris took a steadier in Koroisau’s wake, and sensing they needed a circuit-breaker, Edwards kicked on the third to the right.

To’o almost muscled his way through the biggest North Queensland pack yet, before a Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow touch, and then a Townsend offside, turned this into the biggest accumulation of position so far. Cleary tried to show and go on the left, where Jeremiah Nanai made his first big contribution by getting beneath him, and keeping the Steeden off the turf until the Hammer and Cotter rolled in for support – and like Kikau, Cleary expended his frustration soon enough, by attempting to go it alone once more, with a heroic run at the right post.

Once again, too, Luai made up for his halves partner’s frustration with a boot to the left edge, where Scott Drinkwater was forced to make a play at the Steeden right on the cusp of touch. The Panthers had been relentless in the interim, with To’o making another mammoth stab on the right, and Edwards and Cleary targeting every part of the park, so it felt like the Cowboys might only be able to weather one more set – and Cleary knew it, grubbering early, and tempting another error from Townsend, who tried and failed to trap-and-scrap the Steeden.

Yeo scooped it up, and the Panthers had yet another set, while the visitors came up with another defensive masterclass on the left edge, where the Hammer spearheaded a four-man pack to get beneath – the third time a Panther had been held up over the chalk, after eighteen successive play-the-balls in their red zone. With a Tom Dearden offside, this was turning into a truly surreal bout of possession – so sustained that it might actually end up benefiting North Queensland if they could manage to survive it, so valiantly had they fought for their line.

Finally, Tago slid over on the left edge, and while there was a brief question of a Peta Hiku obstruction, it turned out to be moot, since the replay showed that Tago’s elbow had hit the chalk at the exact moment he ground the footy, thanks to one last bump from the Hammer, who applied just enough pressure to send his quarry slightly off balance. The Cowboys had defended twenty-two runs, and held up four tries, in one of their best defensive passages of the last couple of years, so it they could score now they would really have the upper hand.

They used this next set just to get used to holding the footy again, before summoning an epic chase to ensure Edwards couldn’t make any headway on the return. From there, they returned to the same defensive acumen, limiting Penrith’s advance more than any set so far, as Cleary had to scramble for a kick just over the thirty. Add to that a Liam Martin leg pull, and the Cows looked good here, as Hess banged his way into Panthers territory on tackle two, so it was a real rhythm-killer when the set was paused for Stephen Crichton to get an HIA.

Accordingly, Drinkwater kicked early, partly to restore the rhythm, and partly because To’o was up in the line, but it didn’t do much to consolidate North Queensland as the first quarter came to a close. Instead, the mountain men finally brought it all together, as Yeo set up a sweep through Cleary, Kikau and Luai that ended with Tago getting some joy after his botched try with a much more fluid negotiation with the sideline. Busting right through the line, he defied a low tackle from the Hammer, and flung an arcing harbour bridge ball back in field.

In another team, this might have been a Hail Mary pass, but Tago could rely on the Penrith machine to kick in here, as Hiku reached up and failed to rein it in, leaving the spotlight free for Edwards to scoop up the Steeden without ever breaking his stride, showcasing astonishing footwork and handling in such slippery conditions, before pivoting to the wing where he crossed over without a single Cowboy getting a hand to him. Cleary’s aim was just as true from this angle, and so the Panthers put down their next six as clinically as their opening six.

While even this prodigious try might not have been quite commensurate to their sustained stint on the North Queensland line, it was good enough, and rapid enough, to get their mojo back, even as it ushered in a real slump for the visitors, stretching from a Holmes penalty to a Gilbert error, which they lost their challenge trying to contest. The replay showed that Koroisau had some involvement, but it was deemed to simply be a by-product of him trying to remove his arm, and so the Panthers packed the scrum with fourteen minutes to the sheds.

This was their first sustained close-range attack since all that time on the North Queensland line, and they compounded it immediately by tempting a ruck error from Gilbert himself. Fish collided into Drinkwater on the left, and while he couldn’t get through, it didn’t matter, since the Panthers were in free-flowing footy mode now, as their momentum on the left, and the Cowboys it drew in, cleared up space for Cleary to drive the footy into the line and set up Edwards for the mercurial catch-and-pass that assisted Bizza’s first putdown of the season.

Now, finally, the Panthers had completely put those frustrated 22 tackles on the North Queensland line to bed, since they’d delivered immediately on their very next accumulation of position. Cleary might have bent his next kick out to the left, but this felt like a full stop on the game from Penrith, who had sixteen unanswered points, and Crichton waiting on the sideline with the green card after passing his HIA. To’o and Fish anchored the restart in rollicking runs, and Tago found himself at the end of another fluid left sweep on the fourth.

It wasn’t quite as scintillating as Tago’s last sideline run, and Cleary followed with his weakest game of the night, a wobbly bomb that didn’t land anywhere near where he had aimed it, even if it still almost managed to break the North Queensland backline. In any case, the hosts got the ball again soon enough, thanks to a very low pass from Tom Dearden that went straight through Holmes’ hands and over the side. Cleary was restless to organise two plays into the next set, but again didn’t deliver his best, with a pass Luai had to reach back to collect.

For the first time, Cleary was starting to show a few chinks, so it was the perfect moment for Koroisau to take the reins – first, with a sneaky grubber, and then by bumping the Hammer back in goal just long enough for Luai to arrive and secure the dropout. Yet with Kikau coughing it up on play two, Fish heading to the bench at the top of the VB Hard Earned Index (64), Tago getting put on report for a slow peel, and Big Billy taking out his frustration with a lifting tackle, the Cowboys suddenly had their best glimpse of the opposition line so far.

They got another six again off a To’o touch, while the Panthers lost Jaeman Salmon to an HIA, bringing Spencer Leniu on earlier than expected. Everything was aligning for the visitors, but Crichton and To’o were determined not to let them have the last word defensively, bundling Dearden into touch at the end of the Cowboys’ most vigorous left sweep of the night, justwhen he’d dummied, set his eyes on the chalk, and reached peak stride. It was exactly the heroic effort the mountain men needed after these spotty couple of minutes.

The only thing that could make it better was for Cleary to bounce back from a few poor kicking options – and he did so immediately, with a resounding 40/20. The Penrith machine was back in business, although the North Queensland defence hadn’t let up either, as Holmes followed Crichton and Bizza by using the dewy turf to slide Stephen himself into touch before he could get the offload back in field. Jordan McLean did well to stand in the tackle, and offload to Heilum Luki, a set later, but the Cows still remained scoreless when the halftime siren rang.

Leniu launched himself into the defence for the first carry back, and Martin followed in his wake, carving a passage up the right that Bizza deepened to bring his men to the brink of the forty. Sorensen added some heft, Yeo kept it in the same part of the park, and Cleary ended up booting it to the right corner too, where the Hammer was swarmed by a sea of Penrith defenders as he took it on the ground. Meanwhile, the Cowboys got out of their own end with a Martin offside, and were inside the Panthers’ red zone by midway through the count.

They opted for their first sweep since the break a play later, as Drinkwater heated up with a  sharp cut-out for Holmes, who tucked the footy under his arm, and barged into Bizza. He might just have made it too, if not for a last-ditch touch from Edwards. As soon as North Queensland had glimpsed a space, the mountain men had cleaned it up, as Cleary tried to consolidate with an enormous bomb, but found himself barking for a penalty instead as McLean came in to high – to no avail, despite an echoing roar from the home crowd.

Edwards steadied the ship with a fifteen-metre return on the next set, before Taylan May made Penrith’s first foray up the left edge since the sheds, winning six again from a Hiku ruck error before Cleary, determined not to let the next kick go astray, executed a beautiful chip and skittled between Robson and Cotter, while tempting an escorts from the latter. Between Edwards’ run, May’s initiative and Cleary’s stealth, the Panthers had regathered from the McLean frustration, so it was no surprise they opted to tap and go rather than take the two.

Cleary, in particular, seemed fired up, taking on the line early in the count, and dragging the action right to the chalk, as Sorensen took an equally close run on the other side, and May grubbered from a metre or two out, almost reaching the perfectly weighted ball himself only for Hiku to slide to ground and bat it dead with one hand. This felt like a consolidation point for Penrith, so it was a good twist to see Holmes get some joy of his own, after that missed try, by risking a short dropout that the Hammer took clean to get the Cowboys off the hook.

Townsend wasted no time kicking inside the forty, and for the first period in a while the Panthers faltered, as To’o, Edwards and May all tried to reprise that earlier rhythm up the right, but couldn’t make much headway, thanks in part to a shuddering Nanai-May shot that came halfway through the count, but still felt like a full stop on the set. Conversely, the Hammer was quick off the mark on tackle three of the next set, even if he was stopped by Martin, but the speed was short-lived, since this time the Cows failed to break their thirty.

It felt like the Panthers just needed a big individual play to get the gears rolling, and Sorensen almost provided it with a near-break up the middle, but it fizzled when the chase didn’t materialise for Cleary’s next kick to the right corner. This was North Queensland’s best shot in some time, so it was dire when Holmes put it down on tackle one – a sign that, with half an hour left on the clock, tonight’s game was in danger of descending into an endless footy grind. Either Cleary or Api had to step up here, and Cleary started by taking on the line yet again.

Again, though, Cleary was shut down, while Koroisau couldn’t quite nail the dummy half dart, and even Luai struck it too hard to the left corner, as another Penrith dropout went begging. Townsend tried to rejuvenate the next set with a big dummy halfway through, but no sooner had Drinkwater scooped up a bouncing ball and glimpsed a space up the left than the ref blew the whistle, since Heilum Luki had knocked rather than tapped on the footy after it left Dearden’s hands. With Kenny and Leota off the bench, hopefully the game would improve.

Cleary’s next kick felt like a reset – a modest but confident chip to the left edge, where Tago got a metre clear of the contest, and had both hands wrapped around the Steeden when he simply lost it down his legs, in an error that was as inexplicably un-Penrith as the lack of a chase beneath that last Cleary chip to the right wing. It was as if North Queensland were putting up so little fight that it wasn’t even empowering the Panthers, who were instead sinking to the same malaise, thereby demotivating and dispiriting the Cowboys even further.

After all, if they couldn’t put down a try with the opportunities Penrith had given them, when could they? Like clockwork, they followed Tago’s error with a mistake of their own, this time from Hess, and finally the Panthers seemed to wake up a little, as Yeo galvanised them with a fifteen-metre charge to the line, Cleary started to organise on the left, setting up Kikau for a near-enormous run, and then booted it back to the right, where Crichton climbed above Holmes, only to knock it into the Cows backliner, making this two clumsy fumbles in the air.

Two tackles into the next set, Drinkwater set his sights on a break, and got some joy when he tempted a hand in the face from Kikau, who was already on report for his lifting contact in the first half. By this stage, however, a penalty barely felt eventful, since North Queensland just didn’t seem capable of capitalising on extra position. Sure enough, they charted out a tortured and fragmented sweep to the left, where Townsend was left with no options to speak of, and then tracked their way back to the right post, where Neame promptly lost it.

As the final quarter arrived, then, it felt like this might be the rest of the game – both teams underachieving – so it was a good rhythm-shifter when Crichton lost the footy, and Nanai came up with it right on the chalk. At the end of the set, Luki came closer to a try than any Cowboy but Holmes (perhaps closer than Holmes) only to provide Cleary with the platform for another of the big individual efforts he’d been raring for since the McLean frustration – this time a throwback to the David-on-Goliath tackles that marked his early Penrith years.

Crichton did splendidly too, the two organisers holding up one of the harder ball-runners on the park as Edwards came in for the clean-up effort. May’s linebreak a few tackles later felt like the natural sequel, so it was yet another rhythm-shifter when he lost the footy, and the Panthers lost their challenge, to the chagrin of an increasingly frustrated home crowd. The mountain men translated that rage back into defence, peaking with a sterling Kikau-Carrigan bone-rattler, and culminating with the Hammer being dragged into touch out on the left edge.

With fifteen minutes on the clock, Koroisau back on the bench, and Fish primed for a second stint, we were in the midst of one of the roughest footy grinds all season. Penrith got their next dropout a beat later, Drinkwater went short, Kikau knocked it on, Luki copped some heavy contact, blood streaming down his nose, and both sides packed the grimmest scrum so far – the scrum that North Queensland had to win if they were going to have any shot now, especially with McLean back on the park after it turned out Luki had to trot off for an HIA.

To their credit, this was one of the Cowboys’ more fluid sets since the break, concluding with a decent Townsend floater, but Edwards’ handling was up to it, even if he couldn’t do much with the return this time. Likewise, Hess commandeered an effective three-man pack to hold up Crichton on the right, but Fish’s fresh blood did the work, laying the foundation for Cleary to boot it deep inside the ten. No sooner had the visitors got a fresh burst of position than they were working it off their own line once again, and back defending their line a beat later.

For no sooner had Holmes injected an offload than Drinkwater coughed it up, and Tago capitalised with a deft grubber that led to yet another short Cowboys dropout. For the second time in this second half they regained possession, thanks to some Nanai initiative, but again every reaction seemed to have an equal and opposite reaction, as Nanai commenced the strangest sweep of the night – out to Drinkwater, who only got to it on the ground and so had to roll it back in to Townsend, who in turn lost it to grant Leota fifteen metres up the middle.

This was the death knell for North Queensland, their last shot at cohesion, and as the connective tissue of their game came apart, Hess infringed the ruck, and the Panthers finally congealed with the last and simplest try of the night. Cleary was now in beast mode, but also casual mode, sending the calmest no-looker of his career – almost a football shrug – out to Luai, who responded with a harbour bridge ball to May, who pivoted off the left boot, twisted away from Townsend, and ricocheted off the Hammer to slam the Steeden to ground.

Cleary was always going to boot this one straight through the posts, bringing us to the final scoreline of 22-0 with seven minutes on the clock. It was the emphatic ending the Panthers needed, especially since they basically leaked penalties and errors for the rest of the game. They seemed to be over it, already looking ahead to next week’s game against the Bulldogs, and perhaps even further beyond that, to their next truly equal contest, against the Roosters in Round 16, while true to their night, the Cows didn’t score again, and so have some soul-searching ahead of them.

About Billy Stevenson (739 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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