It was a game of two halves at BlueBet on Friday night, as Penrith, having won the home ground advantage for week one of finals footy, hosted the Parramatta team that had beaten them twice in 2022. For the first half, the match reflected that statistic, as the blue and gold held their own, levelled the score at the 28th minute with an Oregon Kaufusi try, and went into the sheds only a point down as Nathan Cleary responded to a botched Mitchell Moses’ field goal by slotting through one of his own three minutes out from the halftime siren.
Cleary had been great in the first forty, but he came into his own in the back half, making up for five weeks off the park with five minutes of the most prodigious rugby league he’s ever played, galvanising the mountain men into a scintillating footy flow that made it feel like anything was possible, and garnered them their best ever win in a finals series. On the other side of the Steeden, the Eels lost Moses at the 59th minute to a nasty head clash with Viliame Kikau, the last straw in a fragmenting game that saw them go from a 7-6 to a 27-8 deficit.
Parramatta had the kickoff, and Penrith the first possession, which Moses Leota marked with a hard charge into the blue and gold wall. Isaah Yeo took hit-up two, James Fisher-Harris didn’t wait long to launch himself onto the Steeden, and the mountain men were inside Eels territory by the time Cleary took his first kick back from suspension. Reagan Campbell-Gillard gave the Penrith forwards a run for their money, Shaun Lane hit opposition territory, and Moses bombed a towering kick of his own, which Taylan May took confidently on the right.
A good tackle from Tom Opacic on Brian To’o kept the Panthers in their own end this time, while the Eels made their best incursion into enemy territory so far, getting Moses almost to the forty for his second boot. May took it again, this time on the chest, under considerably more pressure from the chase, winning a roar of approval from the crowd, and supercharging his men into a set that saw Fish cross halfway on play four, and Cleary get beyond the forty for the kick. For the first time tonight, he was under pressure as he put boot to ball.
As a result, he opted for a chip to the right edge, but it didn’t pay dividends, while Moses responded with the first masterful kick down his own right side at the end of the following set. Dylan Edwards reached out an arm to tap it back in field, and so prevent the 40/20, but the Eels couldn’t have asked for a better landing from Moses himself, as the Steeden halted midway in goal, leaving May with no option but to clean it up as the Parra chase converged on him. Three plays into the dropout, Moses came up with an equally scintillating effort.
Seeing a chance in the line, he grubbered it low and hard, sliding more than booting it along the turf, and weighting it beautifully so that it sat up right on the try line, where Edwards slid in to clean it up. This felt like a consolidation point, so it was agonising when Junior Paulo coughed it up into a Viliame Kikau hit a play later, and even worse when the co-captain burned his challenge seven minutes in by sending it upstairs, where the replay showed that he had lost it not once but twice. Penrith had the scrum, and the first penalty straight off the base.
Now it was the home team’s turn to have a full set in the other end, as Fish brought it over the twenty on play two, and Cleary started their first big sweep to the right, where Stephen Crichton opted to go it alone instead of popping it out to Bizza. He bounced to ground half a metre out, and would have scored if not for a mammoth trysaver from Maika Sivo, who got himself beneath the footy just as his quarry was bringing it down, and held it up long enough for the support to come in. Moses shut down May soon after, and the Eels got rolling.
They steadied themselves with thirty metres off three straight runs, the last a monster charge from RCG, and Penrith responded with some of their best work up the middle, even if they couldn’t summon much of a chase when Sivo took Cleary’s next kick. A play later, Parra got their first penalty when Liam Martin was called offside downtown, as RCG muscled them over halfway, and Will Penisini tumbled over May to hit the thirty, only to lose the Steeden in the contact, and rise to his feet groggily, before the replay showed high contact from Taylan.
Eleven minutes into the match, and the ebb-and-flow momentum of the opening minutes had given way to the high drama of finals footy, as Penisini left for an HIA, and May was put on report and sent to the bin. Fish and Kikau converged on Isaiah Papali’i to prevent Parra spending the entire set inside the twenty, but RCG was at the ten by the third, and then Lane was on the line, where he tried to plunge through Edwards, Yeo and Martin to touch the chalk. Penrith had summoned a sublime wave of defence here, and saved their best for last.
Moses ended with a harbour bridge ball to the left, where Sivo got through one line of defence, and rose to his knee a metre out, only for a fresh cascade of mountain men to repel him at the death. Meanwhile, Crichton had slotted into May’s position, leaving Cleary that little bit more exposed, and came up with a big play a set later, when he collected a soaring bomb from Dylan Brown right in front of the crossbar. Martin had his toughest run a few plays later, and Cleary followed with his first floater, booting it almost vertically into the ether.
It towered and swirled in the sky over BlueBet for what felt like an age, totally defying Papali’i, who reached out both hands to contain it but let it tumble beside him, where Jarome Luai seized the moment, scooped it up and sent it out to Fish. From there, the cult forward belied his bulk with a balletic no-look flick pass back to Leota, who contributed a brilliant crossfield charge before popping it out for To’o to pivot off the left boot, break through the defence, and smash through Sivo, who didn’t have a shot of stopping the try this time.
This was a critical consolidation moment for Penrith – not only had Cleary delivered the goods in his first attacking kick after five weeks on the sidelines, but the mountain men had regathered with a man down to orchestrate one of the great team tries of the season. Cleary added the extras, and the Panthers were high on adrenalin now, raising the best defence of the game so far at the start of the next Parramatta set – a trilogy of immense and escalating three-man packs that had an increasingly decimating impact on the blue and gold spirit.
In the first, Fish, Martin and Leota combined to shut down Oregon Kaufusi, in the second Cleary, Martin and Izack Tago slammed into Ryan Matterson to drive him back five metres, and in the third, Fish, Leota and Cleary brought RCG to ground like he was the smallest man on the park. Things were now getting desperate for the Eels, as Marata Niukore was put on report for dangerous contact, and Gutho only just got a Cleary grubber down before Fish got there, condensing all this Penrith momentum into a dropout to conclude the first quarter.
Yet just as Crichton had failed to nail the linkup with To’o on the right wing, so Kikau now mistimed the pass on the last to the left, sending it over the sideline as May prepared to return from the sheds. Add to that a rare Edwards drop at the end of the next Parra set, and the visitors had an unexpected opening here, especially once they got a restart to consolidate this close-range attack. For the second time, Paulo lost possession, but saved himself now by giving the footy a second tap, volleyball-style, to turn a near-knock-on into a knock back.
Even better for Parramatta, To’o knocked it while trying to clean it up, giving them a third set on the Penrith line, and then a fourth with another restart. The rhythm of the last ten minutes was close to reversing, so it was agonising to see the Eels peter and fade over the following tackles, as Penisini, back on the park, failed to make the most of some early Moses ball, and Gutho flicked a forward pass out to the other wing a play later, where Sivo opted for a grubber that Edwards had cleaned up on the line anyway before Gerard Sutton blew the whistle.
Penrith steadied themselves with sharp fast movement up the middle, and while Blake took Cleary’s chip, he had to play it on his own line, as the visitors returned to their pack-heavy defence to force Moses to boot it from within his own forty, with only an inspired dash from Gutho bringing them out of their red zone. Against all the odds, Parra now got another close-range shot, when a combined Mahoney-Matto hit on May forced the footy free. Penrith had handed them opportunity after opportunity, so they had to put down four points now.
Dylan Brown palmed his way into the ten on tackle two, and Kaufusi followed in his slipstream two tackles later, thanks to some deft dummy half vision from Mahoney, who drifted left, spotted a break in the line, and shifted it across for his seventeenth man to plunge through a desperate Kikau tackle, and stretch out his full wingspan to land Steeden-first beneath the crossbar. After so many frustrated scenes on the Penrith chalk, the brevity and economy of this try, and the ease of Moses’ conversion, affirmed Parra had indeed earned this position.
In true finals footy style, then, we were all locked up with ten minutes to go until halftime, with both sides going player for player on the VB Hard Earned Index – RCG topping it at 48, followed by Fish at 37, Matto at 33, Yeo also on 33, and Paulo just behind on 32. Back in Round 9, it was also 10-10 at halftime, while neither team scored during last year’s eliminator in Mackay, so the next try might well prove crucial, as we returned to the end-to-end rugby league of the opening minutes, each side waiting for the next individual play – or mistake.
For the first time tonight, a kicker – Mahoney – sent it over the sideline to give his men a breather, a decision that seemed to galvanise the Panthers into an even more restless passage up the middle, from Crichton’s rapid opening play-the-ball, to a series of ducking and dodging charges that ended with another Cleary floater that proved just as dangerous as his first. Blake didn’t have a chance of reading it right, so Penrith had a scrum from the ten, with a little over five on the clock, as the Eels steeled themselves for their biggest defensive challenge yet.
They did splendidly, holding up Spencer Leniu a metre out on play two, and gathering a pack to hold up Kikau on the left, before Dylan Brown launched himself onto a Cleary grubber beneath the crossbar, where a potential dropout turned into a bump down the park when Api Koroisau was called offside downtown. This was such a dramatic turnaround that Parramatta had to mark it in some way, and Moses was the man to do it, attempting a one-point field goal that faded away to the left at the last minute as Penrith got rolling again.
Prescient that this game might live or die by the kicks, Cleary took his cues from Moses now, banging through a field goal of his own to claim BlueBet as the province of his stellar boot. He couldn’t have asked for a better way to close out his first forty after suspension, leading his men to the sheds a point in front after losing a key part of their backline to the bin. The Panthers had won seven from seven in 2022, and a staggering 53 games in a row, when they’d led at the break, so the Eels had their work cut out for them in the second stanza.
Two and a half minutes in, Cleary chipped-and-chased to the right edge, and while he didn’t wrest the Steeden from Sivo, he applied enough pressure for Maika to cough it up as the first wave of defence slammed in. The mountain men had the first close-range attack since the break, as Cleary held up the line in the middle of the park, but the play faltered on the left, where Luai slipped while trying to clean up a wide ball, and Kikau was contained before he could get the offload away, only for the hosts to reflex their muscles beneath the kick.
Again, Cleary was the man, chipping it back towards the crossbar, where Sivo and Opacic competed with each other to take it in the air. Both missed it, leaving the footy live for Opacic to arrive too late to prevent Cleary rolling onto it and so completing an even more elasticised chip-and-chase, for what would have been a certain try if he’d applied a modicum more downward pressure. As it was, with Sivo and Opacic both held to have knocked it back, and Opacic not getting a hand to it, this was a Penrith knock-on, and a big rhythm shifter.
No surprise, then, that the Eels opted to take the kick when Leniu got done for high contact on Papali’i a few plays later, regaining the one-point lead as Moses slotted his second kick of the night from right in front. This was a good boost, but with only four runs from Gutho, and two from Dylan Brown, the spine had to synergise now, while Leniu was lucky to be still on the park, even if the Panthers had scored their one and only try with twelve men. By contrast, May, who’d spent ten minutes off, was at his eighth run when he took Moses’ next bomb.
Even more impressive, To’o was on fifteen carries, and Edwards at sixteen, while the crowd had just started to grow a little subdued when Blake coughed up another Cleary floater. Penrith swept right off the scrum, where To’o was held up, but won six again, and applied more pressure with a rare offload, late and low from Scott Sorensen to Koroisau five metres out from the left post. With another restart, this time from a Mahoney ruck error, they were amped enough to make good on the original scrum play, and send To’o across on the wing.
Cleary set it up with a well-timed wide ball, and Crichton was the key playmaker with the most mercurial of catch-and-passes, barely getting fingertips to football as he drew in Sivo and flicked it out to Bizza, who got on his bike to curve outside Gutho and Dylan Brown just long enough to plant the Steeden down before the trio tumbled into touch, greeted by a corner of rabid Penrith fans. Cleary’s kicking game had been on song all night, so it was no surprise he iced the sideline angle now to bring his beloved Panthers to a 13-8 lead with 25 to go.
Kikau made mammoth post-contacts midway through the restart, Yeo was almost lifted above the horizontal, and Cleary ended with a more manageable kick, relying instead on the chase to keep Parramatta trapped in their own half. Penisini made a valiant effort to match big Billy’s metres after contact, but was driven back over the thirty, while not even RCG’s toughest charge since the sheds could produce a break up the middle. Koroisau went near-break for near-break, and Cleary finished with a floater that Gutho only just cleaned up.
Penrith were now sitting at 1096 to 903 run metres, and got their next big break when Crichton captured a wayward Mahoney ball. It wasn’t as flamboyant as last year’s grand final intercept, but it might prove just as useful in this game, especially when Cleary soared another floater from the thirty. While Parra stayed strong, the Panthers fell back upon that pack-heavy defence from the first half, contributing another trio of hits that again culminated with RCG being manhandled by the Penrith big men, this time on the threshold of his own twenty.
The Eels’ two biggest blows of the night came at the end of the third quarter. First, Lane left the park for an HIA, bringing Paulo into the fray again. Second, and more dramatically, Moses set his sights on Kikau, barging in low and hard, but concussing himself so badly that he took a while to return to his feet, and left the field immediately for a head check of his own. It was arguably the most courageous play of the night, the David-on-Goliath effort that Cleary has sometimes made his own, but also the most costly, as Penrith scored three plays later.
Just to rub salt in the wound, this was the moment when Cleary, who had already enjoyed a scintillating night, commanded the spotlight to showcase the full scope of his prodigious footy talent. In one of the great set pieces of the year, he directed his men left, and shaped left himself, only to dart back to the right edge, and drop it off the right boot, forcing Gutho to dash across the field to greet the footy. Even then, he could only swing out an arm impotently as Edwards read the play beautifully, taking it on the bounce to slam it down with a roar.
There was a Cronk-Slater elegance about this play, a superb sequel to Edwards’ career-best try tally for the season that gifted Penrith the biggest lead of the night – eleven, once Cleary added the extras. High on this sublime footy flow, Cleary broke through the line on the restart, injecting his men with even more adrenalin, and setting up a slipstream big enough to carry anyone who could jack into it. Fish was the beneficiary a play later, when Cleary again ran into the line, and flicked a superb no-looker through a Paulo ankle tap for his prop to slam over.
Fish showed some good grunt to get through the last wave of Parramatta defence, but this try was all Cleary, who capped off five minutes of pure genius by booting the next one through the posts and straight out of BlueBet to bring his men to an imposing 25-8 lead, a far cry from the precarious 7-6 stronghold they’d taken into the sheds. In a small victory, the Eels ended up with the ball on the kickoff, denying the hosts their restart, and with their star halfback off the park they had to deliver real magic now to have any chance of sitting out next week.
Dylan Brown stepped up immediately, slotting through a deft grubber that, try as he might, Tago was unable to bring back over the chalk in the face of a committed blue and gold wall. Word now came down from the sheds that Moses had suffered a Category 1 concussion, meaning he wouldn’t return tonight, while Cleary drove it hard and low for the dropout, but the Eels still got it back, and came close to putting Jake Arthur over on the right wing three plays later. A beat after that, Sivo came even closer to a putdown back on the left edge.
To’o did the job in defence now, compounding his double with a desperate ankle tap to disrupt Maika’s passage to the line, while Arthur was a poor replacement for Moses on his first big kick, which he sent out on the full from deep within his own end. The Panthers were coolly methodical as the big men laid a platform, Cleary took a run inside the ten, Kikau took the offload, and and Edwards floated a harbour bridge ball out to May, who, like Sivo before him, only just missed the try, landing awkwardly on his hamstring in an effort to rein it in.
He left the park soon after, but Cleary regathered with a 40/20 attempt a set later. He was centimetres off, but in a way it didn’t much matter, since he initially thought he’d made it – and the thought was enough to rouse him into the biggest gee up of the game, a resounding roar that gathered all his team mates and the BlueBet crowd into a supreme self-belief. It was the roar of a footy team high on flow, confident of their ability to take on any odds, and a stark contrast to a Parramatta outfit feeling Moses’ absence more and more with each set.
For that reason, and despite the Cleary masterclass that preceded it, the last six minutes of the match were a bit of an antliclimax, since Penrith were already looking forward to a week off the park, while Parra struggled to summon some belief with Moses by no means a sure thing for week two of finals. Edwards may have put down the footy a set after, but Matto lost it just as promptly, as the Panthers packed yet another scrum, and the Eels stared down only 6/15 completions since the break. It felt like a footy epoch since they’d led the game 6-0.
In the end, they wouldn’t even score a consolation try, remaining without points in the second stanza, with the exception of that penalty kick six minutes in. On the other side of the Steeden, the Panthers ended with a final penalty kick of their own, two minutes out from the siren, to achieve their biggest ever finals win, better even than their 1990 match over Canberra, when they won 30-12. They can roar tonight, then, and make the most of a well-earned break, as they prepare to weaponise Cleary even more flamboyantly for week three of finals football.