ROUND 24: Penrith Panthers v. New Zealand Warriors (BlueBet Stadium, 26/8/22, 46-12)

Last time the Warriors played at Penrith, in Round 10, 2019, they came home with the points, and the first quarter of tonight’s match looked like it might just be a sequel to that upset, with Reece Walsh crossing two minutes in. Yet from the moment Taylan May scored at the twentieth minute, this accelerated into a victory lap for last week’s minor premiership against the Bunnies, bolstered by an early return for Jarome Luai, a mammoth night from James Fisher-Harris after two weeks on the sidelines, and no Shaun Johnson in the back forty.  

Johnson caught the kickoff and popped it across for Addin Fonua-Blake to take the first carry, Tohu Harris and Dunamis Lui anchored the later part of the set with mad charges up the middle of the park, and Dylan Edwards was clinical with the kick return, catching Johnson’s first boot on the chest and making thirty metres off the back foot. Moses Leota was on the cusp of the red zone four plays later, then Sean O’Sullivan was at the ten, but the Warriors stayed strong, as Adam Pompey stuck in to start working it out of his own end.

Again, Harris and Lui delivered up the middle, but this time in a single play, as Tohu popped out a short one for Dunamis to break the line, and flick it on to Chanel Harris-Tevita, who finished with an assist for Reece Walsh, who defied a Brian To’o ankle tap at the death to put down his second try of the season. It was the same cascading vision that put Sebastian Kris over against the Rabbitohs in Dubbo – a vision of the Warriors building on every little advantage to come away with an improbable six-point lead once Walsh added the kick.

Josh Curran steadied the restart by standing for ten seconds on tackle two, getting Walsh in place to put ball to boot at the forty for the biggest strike so far – deep into the left corner, where To’o had to contend with a resilient Warriors chase, only for Chanel to concede the first penalty of the game with an offside in the ten. The mountain men had gone from deep in their end to the first full set in the opposition half, and Luai chose this moment to beat four defenders with some dextrous footwork, albeit only making ten metres in the process.

Kikau knocked on two plays later, losing it on the ground after some big pressure from Joey Lussick, and again Curran held his own against a smothering Penrith pack out on the left, before Fonua-Blake copped some of the same treatment on the penultimate play, slowing down the play-the-ball enough that Walsh had to compensate with some big hang time on his second soaring bomb. It did the job, giving his men enough space to summon the chase that kept the Panthers in their own until the fourth, when Api Koroisau broke the line.

This was the best individual play from the hosts so far, so it was a big statement when New Zealand circled the wagons to prevent Isaah Yeo building on Api’s second phase, and then again to force a Stephen Crichton cough-up on the right wing. Strange as it sounds, Penrith were completing at 25% to the Warrior’s 100%, while the visitors brought some of their most plosive defence to bear at the start of the next set, absorbing a mad Taylan May charge on the first to keep Penrith further from the away line than any set so far.

All O’Sullivan could do with that situation was boot it as hard and high as possible, but the chase couldn’t keep up, allowing Dallin Watene Zelezniak to rally his team with the coolest collect so far. With a penalty a play later, thanks to Leota offside, it felt like this could be a second consolidation point for New Zealand, especially when Lussick threaded the needle on the left to force the first dropout of the game. Fonua-Blake was outside the thirty on play one, and Lui outside the twenty on play two, as the Warriors shifted right, and DWZ took it.

He’d been great beneath the high ball, but wilted under the physical and psychological threat of the biggest Penrith pack so far now, mistiming the flick back in field, and landing the footy on Edwards’ outstretched hand. In a typical match, the mountain men would have hit back now, but instead Tago took his eyes of Kikau for a brief beat and allowed the pass to sail over the same sideline that had defied DWZ. The game didn’t have any real rhythm at this point, but no rhythm is good rhythm for any team opposing Penrith, especially at Bluebet.

Dallin proved himself as balletic at the other end of the park, leaping a foot above the defence to take the next high ball, and even finding time to spin around and offload it out to the wing, only for Crichton to make it two Panthers intercepts in this same part of the park. That save seemed to galvanise the Penrith defence, as swarm after swarm forced Chanel to boot it thirty-five metres from his own line – all the way to the ten, but without enough support in tow to prevent To’o bringing it back to the forty to get his men over halfway by tackle three.

Chris Smith came close to a break up the right a beat later, and then came in for huge contact early in the next Warriors set, laying the platform for a defensive push that saw the visitors make even less headway this time around. Again, To’o came up with it, and with Luai making an early shift out to Kikau on the left, the rhythmless last five minutes were starting to coalesce into a war of attrition. Fish would have crossed on play three if not for a last-ditch legs tackle from Lussick, before a second Luai-Kikau combo finally did the job on the left wing.

Luai was visionary here, drifting into the line, hanging the footy low, and staring Johnson straight in the eyes as he shaped to kick, before flicking it out for Kikau to come up with an equally superb effort. Backing into DWZ, he was facing his own goal line as he flicked a no-looker out to the wing, relying on the preternatural Penrith synergy to ensure that the footy would reach its target – which it did, finding May, who made it a trio of brilliant plays by absorbing the brunt of a Walsh hit for his first putdown in seven games.  

Crichton was just as good on kicking duties, slicing the left-footer straight through the posts for what had been a masterclass in how to lean into the Penrith momentum that Cleary had spearheaded without Cleary himself on the park. With Smith forcing an Edward Kosi error two plays later, the chocolate soldiers got the first full set inside the twenty, and felt destined to score again soon, as O’Sullivan came right to the chalk on play two, where he was met standing by Bunty Afoa, and Luai grubbered on the third to force the dropout.

The downside was that Koroisau had copped a leg injury in the fray, and was limping as Walsh struck it beyond halfway. Api had insisted on staying on the park, but Mitch Kenny was warming up on the sideline, although both men were momentarily eclipsed by Kikau pouring into a big gap beside the right post, and almost clearing up space for Izack Tago to bang over in the same spot. New Zealand did well, then, to clean up O’Sullivan’s kick to the right edge, giving Koroisau a beat to start running off his injury before he returned to dummy half duties.

He seemed completely fine by the end of the next set, when he built on a near-break from Yeo up the right by setting up the best sweep of the night – solid pass from O’Sullivan, mercurial tip-on from Edwards, assist from Crichton, and a run from To’o that fused them all into a perfect synergy of speed and strength, as he pivoted off the right boot and made his way back inside to score ten metres from the corner. Crichton proved himself as good a replacement for Cleary from the other sideline, shooting it just as straight this time around.

After thirty minutes, the Panthers had finally got their mojo back, filling the vacuum that had ensued after Api’s break almost set up Yeo to score with a try that started with Api building on a Yeo near-break in the same part of the park. Luai came up with a prodigious effort to keep the next kickoff in contention, playing hot potato with the footy in goal, before O’Sullivan delivered what would have been his best strike of the night if it hadn’t trickled a little far at the death, giving the Warriors an extra tackle to start hitting back.

They got a premature restart a moment later, as the groundsman rang out the bell for a phantom six again, but still managed to hit the thirty, where Johnson banged it vertically, and O’Sullivan got done for running Walsh off the footy. Finally, the Warriors had a full set in the Penrith red zone, as Walsh, who had been pretty lucky to get the penalty, determined to make his own luck this time, slicing through a grubber on the left that prompted the most enterprising play of the night from Fish, who came very close to bringing it back infield.

In fact, if the Panthers could survive here, the sheer spirit of Fish’s play, which had seen him burrow head first into the line in an effort to find space up the right, would only end up galvanising their attack even more. Taniela Otukolo took a shot from dummy half a few plays in, coming up a couple centimetres short but still managing to win his men six again, off a ruck error from Edwards, but it all came apart when Tago and Vailea hased down the Steeden up the right, and the Warriors centre slammed it down too hard to bounce it onto the turf.

This was the closest New Zealand had come to a putdown since their opening try, and not only had Penrith survived, but they reasserted their supremacy immediately on the very next set. They had a new conviction on the first few carries, high on the flow of carrying the footy for the first time in a few minutes, so when they received a fresh set in the twenty off a Chanel error it felt inevitable that they would score. Sure enough, they capitalised off another right sweep, less spectacular than the first, but once again putting To’o over for four.

In fact, the more pedestrian quality of this sweep was proof that the skill gap was starting to expand again between Penrith and New Zealand. They’d felt like teams closer on the ladder in the first quarter of the match, but this was resembling first against thirteenth again now. Crichton might have missed the kick, keeping it a ten point lead, but Spencer Leniu was spearheading a team back in full footy flow when he rolled into a leaky Warriors wall to get the restart going, before Luai put their messiness behind them for good by saving a bouncer.

Between the conviction of Leniu’s charge, and this final correct from Luai, the Panthers had reclaimed control of BlueBet, so it was poetic when they returned to the very heights of their home ground glory with one of their best team tries of the last few years on the left wing. O’Sullivan set it up, carving towards the sideline, and flicking it out to Kikau, who planted a brutal fend into Johnson’s face, and offloaded right on the ground, through a DWZ tackle. May took it, twisting around as mercurially as Kikau himself had when setting up Crichton.

Watching him spin around was like seeing Penrith turn the game back to their advantage in miniature, as he flicked it inside for Tago to assist O’Sullivan, who bookended it all by sliding over with DWZ on his back. In slow motion, you could see the whole spectrum of Penrith’s first forty cross his face – grunt, grit and finally ecstasy – before a Crichton kick brought the mountain men to a 22-6 advantage as they headed into the sheds. New Zealand may have laid down a big challenge in the opening minutes, but the hosts had hit back with aplomb.

When the visitors returned to the park, Johnson had been ruled out with a calf injury, while every member of the Warriors starting squad had missed at least one tackle, compared to only one miss from the entire Penrith outfit, from Chris Smith. If the mountain men had reasserted their top-of-the-table position over the second quarter, then they were back in full flight for the first set back, barrelling their way up the park, and squeezing New Zealand deep in their own end a set later, with the result that Walsh had to boot it just outside his thirty.

Kenny had to step up now, as Koroisau joined Johnson on the sideline two and a half minutes in. True to their depth this season, however, the hosts barely registered the absence, thanks to a Tago burst up the left, a Walsh ruck error on the line, and a pair of plosive short-range charges from Fish and Kikau, who each seemed to draw in half the Warriors defence as they hung over the goal. Now, halfway through the set, there was a delayed response to Api’s absence, and the visitors survived, but even so Walsh booted his next one inside the thirty.

We were returning to the same war of attrition that had set up Penrith’s first half comeback – a steady, brutal unrelenting shoving of the Warriors back onto their own line. Simultaneously, Luai stepped up as key playmaker, almost putting Tago through the defence on the left, ferrying the footy back towards the middle, and showing it a couple of times before absorbing most of New Zealand’s brunt before the posts, where he played it fast enough to give O’Sullivan space to assist Crichton, who put down four more on the right.

There was a brief question of how Crichton’s head had landed, but he was cleared to slot through another scintillating sideline kick, while Luai continued this buoyant leadership by breaking through the line on the restart. Things now decelerated further for the Warriors, as twice an error was followed by six again – mistake from Dallin, restart off Chanel, mistake from Kosi, restart off Lussick – setting up Penrith to parlay their magic out to the other wing, where O’Sullivan got his second straight assist, to produce the easiest try of the game.

The left sweep itself looked pretty promising here, but O’Sullivan was confident enough to take the short cut, holding up the line just long enough to clear up space for Kikau, who sliced through a hole and sailed into open space like he was the wiriest and lightest man on the park. There had been many spectacular Penrith tries tonight, but this was the true death knell, the real psychological blow, not least because it was another dazzling vision of O’Sullivan’s vision from the halves in Cleary’s absence. Crichton added two, and his men were at 34-6.

It was paramount, then, that the Warriors hit back for pride now – and ideally, hit back with an equally clinical try, since they were well past the point of trying to match Penrith’s more prodigious earlier putdowns. To their credit, that’s just what they did, as Harris, the man who had set up Lui’s critical linebreak assist in the first quarter, flicked a short one out for Eliesa Katoa to smash through the Penrith wall and put it down a set later. Walsh added the extras for twelve, New Zealand got a bit of belief, and the final quarter arrived.

On the other side of the Steeden, Fish now headed to the bench with 99 VB Hard Earned points to his name, resting up in preparation for the critical weeks to come – a sterling way to mark his return to the football field. Kosi, whose break had got Harris down the other end of the park to begin with, glimpsed space again on his next foray up the left, although the mountain men quickly plugged the hole, and fed it out to Kikau on their next set to show that they could make inroads up the left as well, before O’Sullivan chipped it out to the right.

Kosi was having a good patch, leaping up to take it on the full, and like DWZ in the first quarter he was faced with a mammoth Penrith pack. Like Dallin, too, he flicked it back inside, and like Dallin he came up with an error – a forward pass rather than an intercept this time around. Nevertheless, it was clear the Warriors were prepared to put up a fight during this last quarter, so it was a bit of an anticlimax when Penrith scored effortlessly off the subsequent mid-field scrum, dissolving this brief contest into yet another Bluebet training run.

Put that down in large part to O’Sullivan, who continued to shine in Cleary’s stead by following his superb short assist for Kikau with a textbook sweep now, moving fast enough, and flicking it wide enough, for Luai to set up May for a double off the easiest cross of his career – a casual stroll into the left corner that was always going to produce points. Crichton was booting through the conversions without a second thought now, bringing the hosts to a clean forty as the Warriors dug in to keep playing for pride, nabbing a dropout from To’o a minute later.

Penrith hadn’t made an error since the 24th minute, while New Zealand got their next penalty with a Lui obstruction and, with nothing left to lose, wasted their Captain’s Challenge trying to contest it. Just like that, the Panthers were back in Warriors territory, keen to reach the half century, like Parra the night before, to gee themselves up for next week’s season closer against the Cowboys. Edwards came close, receiving a Yeo ball and busting through a couple of Warriors beside the post, reaching out his right arm and hanging the Steeden over the line.

So scintillating were Penrith now, however, that May followed with a hat trick on the very next tackle – or so it appeared. Everything seemed stellar, as Luai dummied subliminally, and Kikau delivered the best tip-on of his career, only for the Bunker to deem the assist forward – an interesting technicality, clarifying that the officials can rule on a tip-on, if not a regular pass, in this particular context. It was a shame for May, but didn’t dent Penrith’s rhythm any – and nor did a Yeo offside that bumped New Zealand back up the other end of the field.

Fonua-Blake did well to anchor the set with some metre-eating on tackle four, and Chanel bolstered it with one of the smartest kicks of the night, lobbing the Steeden off the side of his boot to ensure that Luai couldn’t make it back in goal despite collecting it only a metre behind the chalk. Walsh built on that initiative with a chip on the second, forcing Edwards to bang it dead, as the Warriors received their last, fastest and most sustained burst of field position, which was augmented even further by a Yeo ruck error, and then a flop from Edwards.

Yet the game was already winding down, so it was a small victory that New Zealand managed to hold their own at the Penrith end for as long as they did. Still, there was no doubt who the alpha dogs were here, as Yeo brought it down just shy of the chalk fifty seconds out, received a penalty try off Walsh to cap the night, and the chocolate soldiers hoisted the J.J. Giltinan Shield before a home crowd flushed on pride, high on the belief that has made their team the first ever to win twenty plus in three straight years.  

About Billy Stevenson (751 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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