The Panthers got one of their most shocking openers of the season when they conceded ten points in the first eleven minutes of their Saturday night home fixture against Cronulla at BlueBet. Yet they made up for it by grinding in to prevent the Sharkies from scoring another point over the next sixty-nine minutes, putting down twenty unanswered of their own, and surviving a back forty when the game continually seemed on the verge of swinging back to the visitors, to come away with one of their grittier showcases for Nathan Cleary in 2022.
The smoke hadn’t cleared over Bluebet when Cleary took the kickoff, casting the Panthers in heroic relief as they charged into a field of fluorescent light like figures out of Old Norse myth. It took the Sharks a few shots to secure the Steeden in that miasma, as Connor Tracey finally cleaned it up on the line, and Dale Finucane hit clear air a couple of tackles in, getting Nicho Hynes in place to take his first boot from the thirty. Penrith made position much more fluidly on their first set, and James Fisher-Harris was into enemy territory on the penultimate play.
Cleary got his bomb ten metres up field, although a terrific catch and return from Will Kennedy, featuring a couple of tackle busts, laid position for Cronulla, who found themselves plunging into the Penrith twenty off a slow peel from Royce Hunt. Hynes seized the moment by building on a strong Toby Rudolf charge for an early kick, and while Dylan Edwards was caught out of position, Fish slotted seamlessly into the backline for a brief moment to bring it back. Cleary sent his next one beyond the ten, forcing the Sharkies to work it off their line.
For a moment they looked like they might struggle to hit Penrith’s end, thanks to a bone-crunching hit from Liam Martin on Siosifa Talakai, but Hynes spread it left immediately to break this defensive rhythm. Kennedy took on the baton, delivering another superb run to get his men into Panthers territory, but a poor kick option on the last brought it all undone, as the mountain men got Cleary in place for a grubber within the thirty that Tracey ended up containing just as dexterously as he’d saved the dropout when the smoke defied his men.
With a Cleary offside, the Sharks had another full set down the other end of the park, which Rudolf started with a crisp charge, and Hunt continued with some staunch contact up the middle. Again, Cronulla wasted no time spreading it, as Kennedy darted up the other wing, before Matt Moylan channelled that edge momentum into the first crossfield chip of the game. Briton Nikora got hands to it first, but lost it backwards to Jesse Ramien, who only just maintained possession as he extricated himself from a Luai tackle and looked for options.
This was some of the most precarious handling of the year from Cronulla, not least because Ramien almost allowed the footy to trickle down his right side before he finally regained just enough control to shape for a one-handed flick pass out to Tracey. After saving the kickoff and containing Cleary’s early grubber, the no. 2 made it a trio of visionary plays now, setting his sights on the wing, only to pivot abruptly off the right boot, ricochet off Viliame Kikau, spin through Edwards over the chalk, and defy Taylan May when he finally came to ground.
Between Ramien’s capacity to wrest order from chaos, and Tracey’s fusion of speed and strength, this was one of the best Cronulla combos of the season – exactly the kind of statement they needed against a Penrith outfit virtually certain of yet another home win. Hynes may have missed the kick, but he made up for it with an absolutely towering bomb a set later – the kind of gigantic effort that Cleary used to make his mark on Pepper back in the days when he was starting to show us he could be one of the great halves in the comp.
Hynes’ boot did the job here, hanging so crazily that it defied Edwards, remaining live for Hunt to drive it deep into the right corner, where he drew in a swarm of Penrith defenders, and played it rapidly enough for Blayke Brailey to make the most of the deficit in the middle with a short one for Matt Moylan to bang over beneath the crossbar. Yet this was one of the more contentious efforts of the year, despite an immediate onfield call of try from Ash Klein, thanks to some of the most desperate defence of Penrith’s season from a charged-up Isaah Yeo.
By the time he arrived at the fray, he had enough speed and commitment to hold up Moylan behind the line, wrapping himself so thoroughly around his former team mate that there was never a chance of the Steeden hitting the turf. That meant the putdown had to come at Moylan’s first moment of contact, when he bounced the footy off the ground, a millisecond before Yeo met him, but the replay seemed to suggest he’d come down just short here. Klein’s call left no room for debate, but at the very least this seemed worthy of Bunker scrutiny.
This time Hynes added the extras, but these would be the last points Cronulla scored tonight, while the Panthers glimpsed their next shot when Talakai flicked on the slippery Steeden a set later. Not only were the hosts starting a set inside the red zone, but this marked their first foray into the Sharks’ twenty, so it was dispiriting when Luai lost it on play one in a flashback to his subpar Origin III performance, especially since this was the first time all season that Penrith had been behind by double digits. They needed a penalty – and they got one.
It came on the very next set, when Hunt got done for crowding, and was augmented by a ruck error from Cameron McInnes, putting the chocolate soldiers back inside the twenty for the second time this evening. For a brief beat, it looked like they might choke again, as Kikau flicked back a pretty precarious offload, but the rhythm resumed when Ramien batted it forward on the ground, and again when Kennedy got pinged for a scrum infringement, as Cleary tried to set up a pair of big plays – to Edwards on the right, to Yeo up the middle.
From there, he took a steadier himself back on the right, before trying to put Apisai Koroisau through the line. This was staunch vision from the captain, which made it more demoralising when Yeo allowed Ramien to redeem himself by collecting a loose pass out on the left edge – and more spectacular when Kikau stormed in to slam him back over the line to force the first dropout of the night. Penrith had enjoyed a few visionary moments in the Cronulla ten, but they’d struggled to congeal, so this set had to be a consolidator.
A Rudolf ruck infringement got the Panthers in place for their best close-range attack of the night, culminating with Cleary showing Moylan he could boot crossfield chips with the best of them. Still, the Sharkies came up with it here, and Hynes towered his next bomb early to start restoring the balance of field position, before Cleary slotted it even earlier, with a chip on the third that forced Tracey to burrow into the BlueBet turf to prevent another dropout. Still high on his bomb, Hynes stepped up again here, with a wide ball to Talakai right on the chalk.
It was exactly the elasticising and entrepreneurial play that Cronulla needed to hold their own against a revived Penrith pack, a tribute to Nicho’s ever-evolving initiative and intuition at the Sharkies this season. That same clutchiness marked Penrith’s next stint in the opposition ten too, when Talakai collected a messy ball from Edwards in what was fast becoming the defensive masterclass of Cronulla’s season. Back at the other end of the park, Tracey committed himself to one of the best individual chases to put serious pressure on May.
By this stage, it was starting to feel like Penrith, the great synergistic outfit of the 2022 season, needed to rely on a big individual effort to get their mojo back. Scott Sorensen provided it midway through the next set, rallying the troops with a tough run and near-break up the centre, and Cleary responded with a kick that was every bit as clinical and committed, finally defying Tracey, the key backliner of the first few minutes and the first tryscorer of the game, who got to ground a second time, but ended up flicking the footy back on his first touch.
This should have been the tipping-point for Penrith, especially given Tracey’s symbolic significance tonight, but instead it turned into the apex of their fractured attack – or perhaps their frustrated attack, as Kikau slid in for late contact, in a kind of caricature of his magnificent tackle that drove Ramien back over the chalk, turning a fresh set on the ten into another Panthers penalty. To hit back, they needed an even more egregious error from the Sharkies – and they got it when Finuncane misfired to Wade Graham a couple of tackles later.
In any other game, this would have been enough to galvanise the Panthers, especially at home, but there was a strange juju over the field tonight – perhaps a residue of the failure of the Penrith expreriment in Origin III. Brian To’o had been pretty quiet so far, but looked good to make up for it at the end of this next set, with a mad charge up the right, where he tried to kick at speed, only to hand it back to Kennedy, who made twenty-five metres on tackle zero. Add a Spencer Leniu error a second later, and the hosts were starting to flag.
It was time, then, for Cleary to step up with the boot, especially since he’d managed to retain his calm and composure amidst a Penrith outfit that were growing increasingly fractious. He delivered with a clinical grubber and a mercurial bounce that Hynes wasn’t going to risk behind the line, where he cleaned it up to concede a second dropout, as the mountain men finally got the individual play they needed – from Koroisau, who came up with both the best deception play and dummy half vision of the game, Origin-worthy in its sneaky dexterity.
Receiving the footy beside the left post, he held it for an age, set his eyes on the chalk, and swayed his arms to prepare for the crossover, drawing in four defenders only to flick it out to Luai, who only had to double pump to clean up space for Izack Tago – so much space, in fact, that the young backliner founding himself twisting and bracing for contact with Kennedy that didn’t really come. After so much grunt to get themselves into Cronulla territory, the Panthers had scored the most balletic try so far, narrowing the deficit to four with Cleary’s kick.
To keep it at four heading into the sheds, the Sharks had to mount a strong statement against Cleary’s boot, and Kennedy provided it with the most patient play of the game, at the end of the restart. Cleary had slotted it deep into the right corner, where the Cronulla fullback waited, chase converging in the background, as the Steeden slowed and became more unpredictable on the third and fourth bounce, before finally grazing the corner post at the eleventh hour. This was footy brinksmanship at its best, ice-cold clarity from the custodian.
No surprise, then, that Sorensen leaned back into the barnstorming energy that had set up Cleary’s bomb earlier in the game – the first moment when Penrith had started to really apply pressure in this late period of possession – except that this time he tucked the Steeden under his arm and tried to barge through from five metres out. It was the toughest close-range assault of the night, but in the end the mountain men would only get two more on the board before the break, thanks to an Andrew Fifita flop ten seconds from the siren.
Nevertheless, they took the lead forty-nine seconds into the back forty, off their strongest set of the night. To’o laid the platform, making up for a quiet opening half, and only a single tackle bust, by taking the opening run, and absorbing a couple of big hits. Again, Koroisai scintillated from dummy half, starting a left sweep that swung through a Luai double-pump, a barnstorming Kikau run, a May ball, and finally a break from Tago, who eluded a Tracey ankle tap on the very cusp of touch, and regained his balance to lob it back inside to Edwards.
From there, it was clean sailing to the chalk, as the Penrith fullback proved why he’s one of the best support players in the league, and Cleary booted through the two to make it a 14-10 game. Cronulla survived the restart, but only just, while Crichton absolutely pummelled Mulitalo under the high ball in the right corner. This was a psychological as much as a physical test for the Sharkies now, and Tracey proved himself up to it a set later, holding his ground, and putting his whole body on the line, to take a monster Luai bomb in the face of Kikau.
In one play, Tracey had eclipsed both his missed tap on Tago and Mulitalo’s vulnerability under the high ball on the other wing, while winning a second effort off big Billy as well, all of which made it doubly demoralising when Fifita fumbled the footy a few plays later. Penrith had their first close-range attack since the break, so it was a massive let-off when Leniu knocked it forward, and an even bigger let-off when Edwards, the man of the hour, knocked the next Cronulla kick forward, after McInnes had delivered a sterling twenty-metre run.
Now it was the Sharkies’ turn to grind into the Penrith line, but they only lasted a few seconds, as Graham coughed it up under pressure from Yeo, producing the first scrum since the sheds. A little spooked by how quickly Cronulla had (almost) hit back, the mountain men worked it methodically up the park, with the help of a tough Sorensen charge up the middle, before Luai tried to reprise their left-edge glory of the forty-first minute with an sneaky chip up the sideline, where Hynes stuck out a boot to greet it, and Kikau launched onto the ricochet.
If he’d caught it clean this would have been six again, but his knock-on produced another unexpected shift back to the Sharkies, who had gone scrum for scrum, so the time was ripe for Cleary to step up with a big skipper’s statement – and he provided it with one of his trademark David-on-Goliath efforts, slamming himself into Teig Wilton to force the footy free early in the count. It was a play with conviction, cockiness and self-belief written all over it, and Cleary continued that leadership by doing most of the key work on the following set.
Seeing that nothing was doing up the left, the star halfback shifted the play back to the right, and then experimented with some options up the middle, eventually resorting to a grubber that in any other game would have been a conversation-stopper. Here, however, it ushered in yet another unlikely Cronulla comeback, as Fifita got some joy after his fumble with a crafty trap-and-scrap, and Moylan concluded by forcing the visitors’ first dropout of the night, with a well-weighted grubber of his own, Yeo all up in his face, that Crichton collected on the chalk.
The chase didn’t reach him immediately, so he just had time to regather and set his sights on the field of play before a second wave of Sharkies defenders arrived to bundle him back into touch. This had to be a consolidation moment for Cronulla, but instead Cleary made up for his last grubber by reasserting his supremacy with the boot by banging through one of the greatest dropouts of his career – such a low, driving, plosive effort that Ramien didn’t have a remote chance as it careened over the left sideline like a full stop on the game.
Few players have managed to turn a dropout to their advantage so clinically in recent years – if anything, Cleary had used it as a showcase for his own kicking rather than as a real Cronulla opportunity, which is perhaps why Penrith started to feel a little more comfortable in their four-point lead over the minutes that followed. Cleary’s display didn’t quite turn this into a Panthers training run, but it did take the edge off a Sorensen error a play later, before galvanising the chocolate soldiers into another surge at the start of the fourth quarter.
This time it came from Kikau, who brought the third quarter full circle by making up for his left edge frustrations with a break up the wing, bringing him back to his barnstorming best while restoring the flow of Tago and Edwards’ sublime combo after the break. Fish took his cues from his fellow foward for one of the more eccentric kicks of the night – a grubber from the same edge that came to a halt inside the ten, and spun round and round, forcing Kennedy to wait, watch for an opening, and finally risk the knock-on as the chase converged on him.
For a brief beat, it looked like the Sharkies had absorbed all of Penrith’s newfound flow, but the rhythm shifted dramatically when McInnes was called offside in the ten, and then even more dramatically when the mountain men chose to tap and go, only for Kenny to cough it up on play one, and stick a hand in the ruck on play one of the following set. The Panthers had taken the kind of risk that nearly always pays off at BlueBet, so this was the biggest turnaround since the sheds, as Kikau rallied the troops with a mammoth shot on Rudolf.
Still, Hynes was determined to carve space up the middle, glimpsing a break and offloading back for some second phase, before To’o encapsulated this volatile to-and-fro momentum, and then finally resolved it in Penrith’s favour. Leaping to take the high ball on the line, he was powerless to prevent Mulitalo bumping him in goal for the dropout, which he then shut down as clinically as Cleary’s earlier kick, with an intercept on Hynes midway through the count. After a relatively quiet night, Bizza turned out to be the pivotal consolidator.
While there was only a four-point difference on the board, the last thirty minutes had been a wrestle for momentum above all else, so only a superhuman effort could save Cronulla now. Finucane tried to provide it with the most flamboyant play of the game, and the toughest contact, setting his sights upon Crichton as his quarry. Strange as it sounds for such a Goliath-on-David effort, Finucane really put his own body on the line here, slamming indiscriminately into the wiry winger, determined to force anything he could, come hell or high water.
The result was one of the goriest spectacles of the season – Crichton taken off the park immediately, his right ear ripped in half and streaming blood – and one of the more contentious decisions from the Bunker, who cleared Finucane’s contact as Liam Martin trotted off the bench for the last passage of play. Yet Dale’s luck was quickly eclipsed by Kikau’s, who fell into Tracey a couple of minutes later, making shoulder-to-shoulder contact, with no efforts to wrap the arms, dishevelling the no. 2 into fumbling the footy on the turf.
If To’o had absorbed the more volatile parts of Penrith’s game in the way he resolved the dropout he created, then Kikau’s own mixed night was condensed even more dramatically in this play, which brought him precariously close to a penalty, but ended up ushering in the final black and white try of the night. In fact, it was the last great burst of position for either team, as the mountain men won a dropout, and got a repeat set when Mulitalo knocked on the footy to prevent a tryscoring sweep to the right wing.
These two sets had been all frantic playmaking, so it was quite sublime to see how Penrith settled into a more methodical approach off the scrum, intuiting that they could afford to relax now that they had accumulated the best position of the second stanza. That languor was embodied by Koroisau, who casually barked out instructions in the middle of the park, to set up the connective tissue between a Kenny steadier and a Cleary charge on the left, before crystallising that elastic dummy half vision by realising Luai had just enough space to score.
Accordingly, he popped a wide ball out to his five-eighth to pivot off the left boot, slice past Ramien, bust through Kennedy and reach out an arm to plant the footy down five metres outside the right post. No Penrith player gees up the crowd quite like Luai after he scores, and he was fully pumped now, gathering the stadium around him with the double rush that comes from winning a game with so many unexpected swings towards the underdogs, as Cleary sliced through the extras to make it a 20-10 lead, and yet another Penrith home victory.
This was still a staunch showing from Cronulla, who are third on the ladder, between Brisbane and North Queensland, but still light years behind the Panthers when it comes to points, at 318-106. They’ll be looking to consolidate further when they host the Bunnies for a big one at Shark Park next Saturday, while Penrith will be raring to put more points on the board and deliver a few spectacle plays when they rock up to the CommBank cauldron to take on Parramatta – the only team that has managed to disrupt their sublime streak in 2022.