Saturday night was back-to-back blockbusters, but the Panthers’ win over Sydney couldn’t have been more different to North Queensland’s elastic victory over Melbourne. This was grind, pure and simple, closer to the spirit of a particularly grim semi-final, as the Roosters showed why they’re the best goal line defenders in the comp by keeping Penrith out for long stretches of the game, most notably the first thirty minutes, when it felt like they might just get their first win over the mountain men since Round 24, 2019.
Yet that just made the Penrith bursts even more spectacular, most notably a three-try torrent in the last ten minutes before half time that reminded you why this Panthers outfit have now been first or second on the ladder for 50 consecutive rounds. Add to that Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai marking their 50th game in the halves together, and their 45th win with that combo, and this was every bit the team that decimated Melbourne last week. With games like this under their belt, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else winning the comp in 2022.
Jared Waerea-Hargreaves took the first hit-up and was met by a massive pack of Penrith defenders, while Joseph Suaalii popped into the front line to settle his nerves, and JWH took another charge on the penultimate play to get Luke Keary in place five metres shy of halfway. The Panthers didn’t get that far, as Cleary took his first kick around his own forty, and the Chooks followed with a little more headway, thanks to a bit of space for Paul Momirvoski up the left that set up Keary’s kick just inside Penrith territory.
Already this felt like a grind, so the first error or penalty was likely to be high stakes. Cleary took his next one from halfway, and while Daniel Tupou caught it on the full, the Panthers defence was there to prevent him clearing the red zone. It was a big boost for the Chooks when Viliame Kikau found himself offside in the ten, getting them their best position of the night as they hit the red zone midway through the count, where Keary took a risk chipping it on the fourth, and the risk paid off.
Taylan May managed to scoop it up in goal, but slipped on the sodden turf, giving Joey Manu enough time to clean him up. If a bump up the park felt huge in the context of this game, then a dropout had to produce points, or else concede momentum back to the Panthers. Sydney City almost got there, as Teddy followed Keary with a right-edge play – not a kick but a soaring cut-out pass to Suaalii, who would have crossed over on the wing if not for Dylan Edwards, who put his whole body on the line to help May tumble him into touch.
Teddy took the next high ball, and Tupou made good metres to reach the forty on tackle two, before Drew Hutchison mirrored Keary with another fourth-play chip – this time to the left edge, where Edwards was content to let it drift over the sideline. To their credit, the Roosters hadn’t allowed Penrith to capitalise too emphatically on their botched try, as Teddy and Suaalii came up with another clutchy combo under Cleary’s most dangerous bomb so far. Suaalii lost it in the air, but his fullback was in place to (only just) save the day.
Chasing down the Steeden, Tedesco faced a massive Penrith chase, tucked it under his arm, and only just muscled it back over the chalk, with the rest of his body still sprawled out in goal. Cleary ended the dropout with another bomb to the left, but this time the Roosters had regathered, as Manu came in to collect it in the air, and let Suaalii off the hook. Sam Walker kicked early to regain position, the Chooks did well with the chase, and by the time Luai chipped up the left, and Suaalii took it on the full, Sydney had fully regathered.
A good kick meant that Penrith had to work their next set off their ten, but Edwards and Luai made metres up the centre, as the Roosters started to get loose around the ruck, gifting the Panthers a precious repeat set when Angus Crichton tried to intercept a Cleary pass but knocked it on instead. They were immediately dangerous up the left, thanks to some quick thinking from Cleary, who ended by drifting back in that direction, showing the Steeden as leisurely as possible, and then slotting through a mercurial grubber.
It would have produced points if Teddy hadn’t outplayed Edwards with the toughest individual act so far, chasing down the footy and accepting the full brunt of Kikau’s most brutal contact to ensure he didn’t lose it in the tackle. That was a strong enough gesture to sustain his men over the dropout, which he ended by saving another try, this time off a Luai chip that he almost left on the dead ball line, before scooping up in the face of a strong chase. Even then, he briefly considered a run back in field, but had to content himself with taking the hit.
These were two enormous gestures of leadership from the New South Wales fullback, providing the Chooks with a critical early survival period that ended with Liam Martin putting it down early in the count. Penrith had 77% of possession over the last ten minutes with nothing to show for it, except some exhaustion from Sydney, who got a bump up their own end on tackle one of the next set, when Luai followed Kikau by finding himself offside in the ten. JWH took two runs, the Roosters hit Panthers territory, and Keary chipped right.
Suaalii set his eyes on it, but May arrived first, as Keary clamoured for an escort, but the Panthers got the penalty, when Siosiua Taukeiaho was called offside in the ten on tackle two. Two plays after that, Api Koroisau flicked the footy a full metre forward to Cleary – the most egregious error so far, bad enough to be a real rhythm-shifter if the Chooks could capitalise here. JWH continued to be massive, driving his men into the Penrith half, only for a four-Panther pack, spearheaded by Kikau, to drag Manu over the sideline a tackle later.
A moment after, JWH got the first non-offside penalty of the night, taking out the aborted energy of the last set with a high shot, as the Panthers got stuck into a full set down the Roosters’ end. Scott Sorensen hit the ten on tackle four, the mountain men swept left, Izack Tago got the ball, and become the first player to cross the line – although not the first to score. In real time, it was ambiguous, but the replay showed just how brilliantly Teddy had come in for yet another superb defensive effort behind the Sydney chalk.
Keary was the first line of defence, wrapping himself around Tago’s hip, and then sliding down to make it a legs tackle, meaning most of the brunt fell on Tedesco to get beneath the ball. Tago is a hard player to stop at close range, and the Sydney fullback didn’t quite get his whole body beneath the putdown, meaning he had to slide out his forearm at just the right angle to receive the Steeden, in one of the most dexterous defensive efforts we’ve seen in weeks. Once again, the Panthers had failed to capitalise on the Roosters’ line.
Brilliant as he is, Tedesco can’t do everything, and he gave the Panthers their next shot when he coughed up the high ball to gift a zero tackle set in the twenty. Yet this was precisely when Suaalii stepped up in defence, coming in for a David-and-Goliath effort on Kikau that echoed his forward-like charge two plays into the game. Even Kikau himself seemed to enjoy the improbability of this contact, which forced the knock-on, in yet another chapter in the Suaalii show that has accelerated over the last couple of weeks.
The Chooks were proving why they have the best goal line defence in the competition, but they couldn’t withstand the first six again of the night, which came early in the next set, off a ruck error from Lindsay Collins, the most exhausted of the Sydney City big men. To break a high level deadlock, the Panthers needed a high level try, and they got it now, off the three best individual attacking plays of the night. The first came from Yeo, who pivoted subliminally from boot to boot, defying all predictability before flicking it across to Sorensen.
From there, Sorensen took advantage of Egan Butcher being out of position to bust through the line. Teddy came in for the ankle tap, and actually brought the ex-Shark to ground, but even then Sorensen managed to somersault, continue the momentum of the run, and pop it across to Luai, who made it a trilogy of great plays with a burst at the chalk. Suaalii caught him five metres out, but Luai proved to be a harder quarry than Kikau, landing on his back on the line, but still managing to reach the Steeden around for a gusty, hard-earned try.
Luai is one of the flexier players in the Penrith side, but there was no celebration for the home crowd now – just exhaustion on his face, reflecting one of the toughest thirty minutes of goal line attack the Panthers have executed this year. Cleary added the extras, Kikau came in for a playful revenge shot on Suaalii, wrenching him to ground on the next kick return, Cleary stripped the footy from Tupou, and Penrith made it back-to-back tries on the set after the restart, for another six unanswered points.
Again, it came off a left sweep, but this time the try was much simpler, as the Panthers started to find their flow. In the end, it came down to two subliminally timed dummies – from Cleary, who shaped for Luai but only shot it out on the second go; and from Luai, who shaped for May, then pivoted off the left boot, turned Keary inside out, and crossed himself with Fletcher Baker on his back. Even if Keary hadn’t slipped on the soaking turf he probably wouldn’t have got there, and this time Luai was back in flex mode, roaring as his team mates came in.
Cleary added the extras, the Panthers got a last burst of position off a Butcher error and a third dropout, and didn’t even bother setting up for a field goal – they were going for a try. Right on the siren, Koroisau made up for his forward pass, the only real moment of vulnerability for Penrith tonight, with a prodigious play from dummy half. There was nothing fancy here – just immaculate timing, footwork and strength, as the future Tiger pivoted from boot to boot before slamming through Butcher and Collins to make it eighteen with the kick.
The Panthers had a clinical set back from the break, ending with a Cleary kick from halfway, while Kikau continued to target Suaalii on the high ball, putting him on his back, while also grinning at the incongruity of this being his personal animus tonight. He was even better in attack, tucking the footy under his arm, getting outside Suaalii, and executing a perfect one-hand flick out to Tago, who danced along the sideline, dropped it on the boot, and found the perfect angle at speed. Back in field, all Edwards had to do was pin it down.
Instead, he knocked on, in the second major Penrith error since Api’s forward pass, while the Roosters got another burst of position when a Fletcher Baker loose carry was reclassified as a Kikau knock-on. They mirrored the mountain men with a mid-set sweep, but they weren’t able to muster anything like the same energy, as Brian To’o, who had already run over a hundred metres, leaped up to take a Walker kick on the full with no real Roosters contest. Penrith now had to work their way back from that botched try, or risk falling into a lull.
On the other side of the Steeden, Teddy brought the next ball back with grim determination, as Martin slammed in to provide a brick wall defence. It was a game of inches, so a Butcher-Teddy offload was nothing to scoff at on tackle four, and nor was a penalty on the last, when Suaalii leaped up to take the kick, and tempted May into an aerial tackle. For the first time tonight, the Chooks had a full set in the ten, and pivoted around the middle of the park, waiting for the subliminal opening they needed to defy a near-omniscient Penrith defence.
In the end, it came down to a Walker chip to the left, and while Tupou, like Suaalii before him, managed to catch it on the air, the Penrith pack was there to prevent the footy getting to ground. The Chooks had now caught the kick on both wings, and both times the Panthers had survived, so the visitors had regained some rhythm after the letdown of Edwards’ knock-on. Once again, Sydney were met with a staunch pink and black wall, but this time Luai conceded another offside to bump the Tricolours up the park.
They were inside the red zone midway through the count, where Walker popped a wide cut-out to Momirovski, as if desperate to avoid the midfield prevarication of the last set. For a moment it looked promising, as the ex-Panther grubbered it along the sideline and chased it down, but he’d counted without a prodigious play from Stephen Crichton, who made up for a fairly quiet night by launching himself onto the Steeden and reining it in one-handed as his former team mate tumbled over him.
Penrith might have found their flow in those last ten minutes before the break, but we were well and truly back to the arm wrestle of the first half hour now, as a Keary bomb forced the mountain men to work it off their own line, and Martin added to his error tally with a knock-on, as Tyrell trotted on to become the third player in the May clan to make his NRL debut. Yet so staunch was the Penrith line that Walker had to fall back upon previous plays, opting for another grubber on the left that paid better dividends this time around.
Stephen Crichton had no option but to bump it into touch, Tyrell May made a massive carry for his first touch of first-grade footy, Teddy drove it into the corner, where a sea of Penrith jerseys bundled him up, Tupou leaped for the kick on the left, and just like that Stephen Crichton out-giraffed the Giraffe. Even with his save on Momirovski, Crichton had had a quiet night, but now he ran the length of the field to slam down the first try of the second stanza before the mountain men had even enjoyed a single tackle in Sydney City’s half of the park.
Conversely, the Chooks had made twenty unanswered tackles in the opposition half since they returned from the sheds, only to see Cleary convert yet another try, to make it 24 unanswered points, on the brink of the final quarter. It was a heartbreaking moment for the home crowd, so Teddy really had to rally the troops, and build belief, to prevent this game bleeding into next week’s stint against the Sharks. Ideally, of course, they had to win, although that was starting to look less and less likely as Penrith completed another clinical restart.
JWH weathred a tough Leota hit on the next Sydney set, frontrower on frontrower, and yet Cleary responded with another massive kick, forcing Suaalii to work it back from the ten as the Panthers’ chase showed no sign of flagging. Yet the Roosters hit back now, seemingly out of nowhere, off a series of desperately courageous plays that finally got Teddy in place for the Tricolours’ best run of the night – a captain’s charge, the rallying-point that an exhausted Sydney City outfit and their fans needed.
Manu got the set rolling with a terrific run up the right, barging through an ankle tap from Tago, then shrugging off Luai and May to feed the footy back inside. On the other edge, Teddy took it into the line, building space for Crichton to make seven post-contacts and pop a harbour bridge offload back to Taukeiaho. Connor Watson was brought to ground a play later, but the restless speed of his run laid the platform for Keary to provide the assist, straightening and pushing deep into the line as possible before flicking a short one in to his fullback.
The rest was all Tedesco, who was hit by the defence the moment he received the footy, meaning he started on his knees, but still managed to muster enough muscle to twist through Martin at the death and slam down a resounding Sydney try. Walker added the extras, and this shift in momentum ushered in one of the more volatile periods of the game, starting with another instalment of the Suaalii-Kikau show, as Keary lobbed an overlong pass above the sideline, Suaalii juggled it, and popped it back in field, where Kikau beat Manu to it.
Penrith were back on the attack, but they lost their position with a rare attacking penalty for Edwards, who got done for not playing the ball front-on. Yet with Taukeiaho swinging an arm into Martin’s face, and JWH infringing the ruck a moment later, the visitors had all the position they needed to hit back at Tedesco’s crossover. A Kikau offload on the ground got Kenny five from the line, where Cleary took a forward-like charge, clearing space for James Fisher-Harris to bump off JWH and put down his first try in 23 games, after a 50 game drought before that.
Even worse for the Chooks, Jared’s contact was high and hard, causing Fish to rise from the ground rubbing a significant bump on his cheekbone. Even then, Jared might have only copped a penalty, but he gave Gerard Sutton significant backchat, including some expletive and invective, and got himself sent to the bin for his dissent, while coming dangerously close to a send-off. No doubt it was a frustrating decision, since he was just trying to save the try, but the replay did show a swinging arm clocking Fish clean in the face.
Meanwhile, Cleary added the two kicks to put his men 32-6, as both sides steadied themselves for what could be an ugly final ten minutes. Kikau got on report for pressure on Keary, Teddy sent up an unsuccessful challenge (more that ten seconds after the play) to contest hitting touch in the face of a big Penrith pack, and Crichton got done for high contact on Momirovski, as all the grind of this grim game condensed into a series of aborted and frustrated plays, that almost culminated with a denied Momirovski try due to a Crichton-on-Cleary obstruction.
Instead, the Bunker made the right decision, recognising that Cleary had reached out his arm for first contact, as the Roosters hit double figures. It was the last major play of the night, with twelve men on the park, but even so this was a pretty sobering evening for Sydney City, who will be looking to hit back big against the Sharkies next week. On the other side of the footy, the Panthers just go from strength to strength, and with clinical wins over the Storm and Chooks under their belt, the stage is set for a blockbuster against North Queensland on Friday.