The last game between Penrith and Sydney featured one of the most notorious finales of the 2022 season – Jared Waerea-Hargreaves sent to the bin after dangerous contact on James Fisher-Harris and vivid dissent with Ashley Klein – so high drama was to be expected when they met again at the foot of the mountains on Friday night. It was exactly the same lineup as when the two clubs met for the second time last year, and a genuine challenge for both teams, although for very different reasons.
On the one hand, the Roosters had slipped out of the eight, lost their last three, and were staring down conceding four in a row for the first time since 2016. If they didn’t get the competition points tonight, they needed to win a minimum of 5/8 games in the buildup to finals footy. Victor Radley was back on the park for the first time since his Round 10 ankle injury against Parra, after absorbing the wisdom of Blues camp a week ago, while Joey Manu had shifted to five-eighth among ongoing questions around Luke Keary’s concussion issues.
On the other side of the Steeden, the Panthers have proven they can win under virtually any circumstances (at least during regular football) during the last two years, but had a unique challenge now – coping with a staggering thirteen players backing up from Rep Round, seven of them from Origin appearances. Yet they actually drew on that residual energy to provide Jarome Luai with a win for his 80th NRL game, playing as if they were still in the midst of their rep duties, right down the Origin-level effort from Api Koroisau that won them the game.
Teddy took a chaotically bouncing kickoff, Radley celebrated his return to the park with the opening carry, and Joseph Suaalii followed in his wake, before Sio Siua Taukeiaho muscled it over the forty for Drew Hutchison to kick early. Suaalii got an awkward angle with Cleary’s first kick, but managed to contain it safely on the wing, although the Panthers had enough time to totally swamp Sitili Tupouniua by the time he took tackle two, while Joey Manu was taking a while to warm up in the no. 6 jersey, and coughed it up on the next play.
Penrith basically had a full set inside the twenty, as Luai built off a strong Fish run to take them over the red line on tackle two, before almost creating space for Viliame Kikau on the left on the final play. Once again, though, Suaalii delivered, this time with the hit-up; once again Hutchison booted it early, this time just on the other side of the forty; once again the Panthers got a bump up the field, when Tupouniua conceded the first penalty of the game with an offside; and once again they were inside the Roosters’ red zone by play two.
They got a further bump this time, however, when Sam Walker stuck out a boot to deflect an Izack Tago dab out on the full. Now Penrith genuinely had a full set inside the red zone, and with a fresh burst of position two tackles in, off some Lindsay Collins crowding, they had to get on the board now, or else concede the momentum back to the Roosters. Wisely, Cleary booted through the two, since it was unthinkable that this could end as a triumph of defence for Sydney City, so clinically had the mountain men advanced up the BlueBet grass.
The Chooks defended the first four plays of the restart pretty clinically, but some good post-contacts from Isaah Yeoh, a last-tackle spread from Luai, and a break from Taylan May looked set to change all that – until May got done for a forward ball (to Luai’s frustration) and Sydney got their first bump of the night when Koroisau was called offside. With Taukeiaho putting it down on tackle one, however, the Panthers pretty much resumed their restart – it was like they’d received a penalty themselves – hitting the twenty by midway through the count.
Cleary ended with one of his most dangerous kicks yet – a crossfield chip that Manu greeted with both hands in the air, but lost into Hutchison’s head, before trying and failing to ground it in the field of play, meaning it all came down to Billy Smith to reach out an arm and only just roll it to earth behind the chalk. In stark contrast to this clutchy play, the Panthers scored clinically off the subsequent scrum, through their first great sweep of the night – Cleary as starter, Edwards as extra man, and Crichton with a silky catch-and-pass for To’o.
The star half made it eight unanswered points with the kick, and the Chooks got a real scare at the end of the restart, when Teddy was momentarily dazed by the rain and floodlights into spilling the high ball backwards, and so giving the chase enough time to ensure he couldn’t make metres. The visitors desperately needed Cleary’s offside penalty a few plays later, but couldn’t make much headway, inducing Walker to kick on the fourth only for May to come up with a heroic take on the wing, defying a huge Suaalii leap to land in the field of play.
Still, the Roosters returned the favour in defence, keeping Penrith in their twenty for the first four tackles, until Tupouniua made up for the dangerous shot that had sent Kikau off the park, and led to the Panthers’ tryscoring scrum, by forcing a Liam Martin knock-on. This was very much against the run of play, and sure enough Taukeiaho lost it again on tackle one, leaving the footy free for Koroisau to offload on the ground for Jaeman Salmon, who made it all the way to the Sydney City ten, as Crichton grabbed Crichton for a binworthy foul.
With a penalty, an extra man, and a barnstorming run behind them, the Panthers were in full footy flow now, so it was no surprise that Yeo simply tried to slam his way through Egan Butcher beneath the crossbar on tackle two. The Roosters just held their line, meaning it came down to another Cleary chip to the right. Once more the visitors survived, as Smith and Manu reversed the rhythm of their last combo under the high ball – Billy reaching it first and knocking it back, Joey cleaning it up, but this time in the field of play.
True to the spirit of this dominant Penrith game, however, Salmon slammed onto Smith a play later to force the footy free, in the first real casualty of the wet weather since Manu’s cough-up in the opening minutes. Cleary dragged Teddy, Manu and Collins over the ten a play later, while winning his men a restart in the process, so it was a big turnaround when Radley came in low to force a Leota cough-up, giving his men a critical scrum to start redressing the deficit in position – 16 to 2 tackles in the opposition twenty at the start of the second quarter.
Walker enterprised with a 30/20 attempt, and had a decent shot, especially given the sodden surface, forcing Edwards to accelerate to bring the ball back into contention. Yet that just galvanised Fisher-Harris into some of his best post-contacts so far, as Kikau now watched on from the exercise bike, and Cleary finished with his most soaring bomb. While it slid off Smith, the young centre made up for it a few seconds later, curving around to contain a second grubber from To’o, as the crowd bayed that Billy had actually knocked on the high ball.
Radley, Collins and Tupouniua combined to ensure that Edwards couldn’t make a single metre at the back of another long Walker kick, this time straight down the middle, although Cleary made up for it by taking advantage of a lack of line speed from the Chooks to get Luai in place for his first crossfield chip from the twenty. Yet the Roosters survived once again, as Smith took care with his ball handling on play one, and Teddy took on the line for a captain’s charge on play three, clearly keen to motivate the troops on the brink of Crichton’s return.
Hutchison followed Walker with a 40/20 attempt, and while he didn’t make it, the Roosters were starting to find their feet, forcing Cleary to boot his next one from halfway, as Teddy swerved vertiginously to the right for the most impressive take on the full so far. Four plays later, Manu delivered his best footwork to send Teddy through the line with a clinical flick pass, and the game’s best fullback read the field beautifully, popping it across for Walker to slam over under the crossbar, before converting his own try from directly in front.
Eleven minutes out from halftime, the Chooks had made it a two-point game and, just as important, had scored with a man down. In fact, Crichton returned between the try and the kick, leaning into one of the Roosters’ best sets of the night on the restart, before Cleary ended the Panthers’ next carries with one of his most pressured kicks of the game as well. Suaalii got a strong offload the set after that, and while Taukeiaho continued to struggle with a bouncer, Teddy almost broke through the line, and Walker regathered with the kick.
By this time, Tedesco was the only Rooster in the VB Hard Earned Index, beneath Fish, Leota and Yeo, galvanising Edwards into going fullback-on-fullback with a near linebreak of his own midway through the following set. The most volatile period of the game so far now followed, as both teams tried to take control before the break. Kikau relaxed just before taking a Luai offload, resulting in more shuddering contact from Tupouniua, Walker experimented with another long kick, and Teddy took a pinpoint effort from Cleary right on the chalk.
In the end, the critical error (or the first in a string of critical errors) came from Smith, who knocked on as the Roosters tried to spread it left as the rain reached a new pitch of intensity. From here, the field position flowed freely for the mountain men, staring with Connor Watson conceding a restart, although the Chooks also contributed their best defence of the night – epic trysavers on both sides of the park from Taukeiaho (who finally got some joy) on To’o, and then Teddy on Yeo, that forced Cleary to boot it on the very cusp of the left sideline.
Manu made it a trilogy of terrific defensive efforts, crystallising all Sydney’s efforts in fielding these crossfield chips with a solo take right on the chalk. Yet the Panthers had the last word, off a pretty unlucky penalty for Sam Verrills, who remained in place as Scott Sorensen used him as a fulcrum for what was somehow deemed a dangerous tackle, despite the absence of any lifting motion. A few seconds later, Kikau barged through on the left, leaving the away fans fuming as a Cleary kick on the siren restored Penrith’s eight point lead.
May took a strong hit-up to get the second stanza rolling, Cleary got a floater away from halfway up the park, and Daniel Tupou took it clean for a strong chase to break his twenty. Teddy was restless as ever a few plays later, almost busting his way past Sorensen up the left edge, and Manu followed suit, delivering his best kick of the night to almost set himself up for a try, and getting the next best thing when Edwards slammed in side-on to try and contain it, only to find himself sliding into touch by his own desperate defensive momentum.
That said, the rain had started to ease off as the Chooks started their next assault on the line, where they got a fresh set when Cleary was pinged for lying in the ruck, and then six more off a Mitch Kenny ruck infringement, before Walker slotted through a well-placed grubber that Edwards had no option but to ground in goal. Watson took on the line and offloaded on the ground to Verrills, Teddy broke away from a couple of tackles on the right, and it felt like the Roosters had finally found their footy flow, as Walker got more position off the kick.
This time it was a chip to the left edge, where Tupou leaped up to greet it as the rain suddenly intensified again, knocking it backwards for Crichton to send it forwards. Like the Panthers in the first quarter, the Chooks had to get points on the board off this burst of position – and they did it in the most rousing way, as Taukeiaho bounced back from a few spotty plays to bookend the break by receiving a Butcher ball, brushing off Yeo and Edwards, and running the exact same line as Kikau to restore the two-point difference once Walker converted.
The Roosters now had 6-40 tackles in the opposition half, and 1-14 since the break, so it was a minor miracle that they were 14-12 – tribute to their heart and guts as they settled into a rollicking restart, which Walker finished with an end-over-ender that denied Edwards much of a return. Cleary was the next kicker to attempt a 40/20, and while the bounce initially defied Suaalii, he knocked it backwards, and eventually managed to clean it up, before Walker almost capitulated to the greasy Steeden as well, but ended up holding on for dear life.
Both of those near-handling errors paled, however, in comparison to Kikau’s next play, the most volatile turnaround in the game so far. Charging down Walker’s kick, Big Billy only had to bend down and scoop up the Steeden to score with open space all the way to the line, so it was agonising for the home crowd when he flicked it forward for Teddy to curve around and bring it back up field. With that shift, the Chooks were in full flow, and Butcher ended the next set by chasing down his own grubber to tackle Cleary over the dead ball line.
Sydney now had 78% of possession since the break, along with 9/9 completed sets and 305-75 run metres, so the game was theirs to take if they could capitalise on this dropout. Tupouniua couldn’t get through on the right edge, Tupou was contained by To’o and Crichton on the left, and Koroisau prevented the other Crichton smashing over from dummy half, albeit conceding six again in the process. Yet with this momentum in all parts of the park, the Chooks only needed one more shot – and they got it when Api conceded six again.
From here, it only took one more play for the visitors to gain the lead, as Manu drove the footy hard into a pack of Panthers beside the left post, and half-offloaded, half-spilled it back in the contact. The set briefly teetered on the verge of chaos, but Verrills saved it – and possibly saved the Roosters’ entire game – by reprising Crichton’s dummy half charge. Scooping up the Steeden, he slid straight past the defensive pack still reeling from the Manu tackle, and went in low and hard on Kenny at the death to slam down the next four.
Walker added another two from right in front, and the Roosters had taken the lead for the first time, three minutes out from the final quarter. The next try would be critical, and possibly the next error, which came when Koroisau made his second straight mistake by losing the greasy football in the face of a massive combined front-on tackle from Watson and Manu. Sydney had the scrum feed, Taukeiaho and Teddy had leaped to the top of the Hard Earned Index, Collins was back off the bench, but it all ended with Radley putting it down.
Even worse, this was an unforced error, without a Panther in five metres, and the Chooks’ first mistake since the break, in what felt destined to be a tuning-point as Penrith marked the arrival of the last quarter with a fresh assault on the Sydney City line. Kenny became the third man to put it down, Collins got done for crowding, Teddy appealed for a Captain’s Challenge to no avail, and the visitors’ fortunes now shifted dramatically. Rather than ushering in a torrent of points, Verrills’ try would turn out to be their final points of the night.
Penrith hadn’t quite regained control either, as Fish dumped the ball out the back to Tupouniua directly after Manu conceded six again inside the ten, while Tupouniua made it a double of enterprising plays by coming in low for the most bone-rattling hit of the night to ensure that Edwards couldn’t get a decent return off the high ball. He almost ricocheted the Penrith fullback clean off the ground, but all the aggro and adrenalin dissolved into an offside for Manu that bumped the hosts back into the red zone with four tackles to play with.
Two tackles in, Salmon channelled Tupouniua’s energy into an absolutely barnstorming run from close-range, up the left – tough enough to ricochet the footy free as he banged into a Sydney pack, but not without Manu concedeing a second straight offside. This had been the most dramatic accumulation of position all night, and while Walker did well to prevent Edwards from kicking on the fourth, in the middle of the park, Cleary’s timing was as immaculate as ever, as he wrested simplicity from volatility with a short ball for Tago.
So elegant was his assist that the Roosters’ defence, which had worked hard over these last few tackles, simply faded away, as Tupouniua hedged his bets, waiting to see whether Kikau would be the recipient, and only making transitory contact with Tago’s ankles when it became clear that Cleary had pulled off the best cut-out of the night. The try had levelled the score, Cleary booted through the extras to resume a two-point lead, bending it around behind the right post for what was about as close as the modern Panthers come to a clutchy conclusion.
Tupou took Cleary’s kick clean at the end of the restart, but the chase was waiting for him, dragging him back over ten metres to make sure that the Chooks couldn’t gain any momentum on this set. Walker was barely over his thirty by the time he put boot to ball, slipping so awkwardly on the sodden turf that it was remarkable he managed to strike it as well as he did. On the other side of the Steeden, Kikau was back in the same spot, shifting it out to May, three tackles later, so another Penrith try felt imminent any moment now.
Cleary went for simplicity on the last to rally the troops – a chip out to the right, where Tupou took it again, and again didn’t come close to a kick return. For the second straight set, the Roosters were trapped in their own forty, and not even a Teddy dummy half run could prevent Walker from booting it in exactly the same spot, albeit with no slip this time. In the last ten minutes, the visitors had gone from their peak performance in the game to holding on for dear life, as Hutchison and Taukeiaho left the bench to re-energise the last ten minutes.
The death knell was Cleary’s next kick, or at least started with Cleary’s next kick, as superlative, in its own way, as so many of his others tonight. Booting it low and hard along the ground from the right wing to the left post, he seemed to be sliding more than kicking it, and forcing Walker to slide in turn as he bumped it to ground. With a dropout, it was impossible to conceive that Penrith wouldn’t score now, and sure enough, they not only put down the final try, but did it resoundingly enough to absorb all Sydney’s fleeting brilliance.
Yeo set it all up with a deft flick to Fish, ten metres out from the chalk. Radley’s contact, backed up by a couple of other Chooks, was enough to shudder the big prop, but not sufficient to deflect him from his path, or to prevent the quick play-the-ball that left just enough space for Koroisau to channel his Origin brilliance at marker. Scooping up the footy and setting his eyes on the line in one motion, he seemed to teleport rather than run the distance, getting down low to elude Radley and leaving only Teddy to tumble over on top of him.
Seeing these two Blues stalwarts coming apart like reverse ends of a magnet was the last great spectacle of the game, which gradually decelerated through errors from both Cleary and Tedesco, neither of which dented their superpowers over the last eighty minutes of footy, some of the hardest-fought all year. Penrith have won in virtually every other context, and have now proven they can get the competition points with thirteen men backing up after Rep Round, while the Chooks will be looking for a very big win over St. George after the bye.