FINALS WEEK 3: Penrith Panthers v. South Sydney Rabbitohs (Accor Stadium, 24/9/22, 32-12)

We’re in for one last Battle of the West after the Panthers delivered a second half surge against South Sydney that was every bit as sublime as Nathan Cleary’s masterclass against their grand final opponents two weeks ago. Cleary was the key player tonight as well, keeping his men calm after the Bunnies put down twelve unanswered points, and steering them to 32 unanswered points of their own, starting with a pair in the last two minutes before half time, and culminating with a chip-and-chase for himself in the last two minutes before full time.

That result was all the more extraordinary in that Penrith started the game with three denied tries, losing rhythm by the minute between the first and second quarters as the Rabbitohs glimpsed one of the great finals upset wins. The key moment was arguably South Sydney’s decision to go for one last try, rather than a field goal, on the cusp of the sheds, since it was in the midst of this final right sweep that Brian To’o scooped up a loose carry from Campbell Graham, eluded Cody Walker, and ran the length of the park for the best try of his career.

The sheer tenacity of Bizza’s run supercharged the mountain men in the back forty, where they shut down every opportunity, however brief, that the Bunnies glimpsed, becoming only the fourth team in the modern NRL to reach the big dance three years in a row, with only eight of last year’s trophy winners on the park tonight. Paradoxically, though, the Panthers feel even more consolidated around their core, even more aligned with the shared vision of the Ivan Cleary era, as Cleary Jr. prepares for an epic contest of the halves with Mitch Moses.

Lachlan Ilias took the opening carry, and shifted it across to Tevita Tatola, who required support from Ilias and Cameron Murray to weather the first surge of Penrith defence. The Panthers maintained that wall, keeping them to the twenty until a Murray charge on the penultimate play, while James Fisher-Harris, by contrast, was at halfway by tackle three of the following set. Latrell Mitchell did well to take Nathan Cleary’s first kick under big pressure from Liam Martin, but there was no hope of a return here, as the Penrith defence resumed.

Richie Kennar a baptism by fire in Alex Johnston’s boots, getting knocked straight off his feet, and the Bunnies made a little more headway this time, bringing Ilias to the brink of Penrith territory for the kick. Meanwhile, the Panthers spread it for the first time midway through their next set, and Cleary continued that enterprising play by kicking before the last, booting through his second shallow one of the game to fatigue Latrell by forcing him to work for it. It was a convenient time, then, for Souths to get a restart, and their first set in Penrith’s end.

They were inside the ten midway through the count, where Latrell shot a harbour bridge ball to the wing. Cody Walker came up with it, and shifted the footy back inside for a settler, meaning it all came down to Ilias’ kick – a crossfield chip that was aimed at Campbell Graham, but contained by the Panthers amidst a sea of Rabbitohs jersey. Murray had been on fire from the start of the match, and put enough pressure on Cleary now to force him into a subpar bomb from his thirty, as South Sydney settled into another assault down Penrith’s end.

It concluded with another terrific option from Murray, who drove deep into the line and flicked the footy out for Ilias to boot it just as far into the right corner, where Dylan Edwards dove on it, but couldn’t withstand the dewy surface enough to avoid the dropout. Continuing to organise the playmaking, Murray now sent it left, where Isaiah Tass was only just cleaned up, before popping it right a few plays later, for Taane Milne to bring it over the line, but not without a forward ball from Latrell. After two sets on their line, Penrith had the scrum feed.

A Moses Leota offload to Mitch Kenny early in the count was just what the mountain men needed to elasticise this set, as Martin hit Rabbitohs territory on tackle four, and Cleary booted another one before the last, before leading the chase himself to make sure Milne didn’t get any metres. Leota consolidated further with a massive shot on Latrell, slamming the South Sydney fullback to ground in an echo of Sonny Bill Williams on Joel Clinton in 2004. Latrell was fine, if winded, and had to hit back quickly with a big individual play of his own.

Instead, he almost became the casualty of the first Penrith try of the night – and Cleary’s first torpedo bomb, which floated so mercurially that both sides had to let it bounce before Izack Tago scooped it up and outpaced him Latrell all the way to the chalk. It was a big let off, then, when it was called back due for a Jarome Luai obstruction on Ilias, as the Bunnies went from almost conceding a try to receiving the next penalty, for yet another set in Panthers territory. Tatola drove it to the thirty, Mark Nicholls to the red zone, and Murray to the brink of the ten.

Murray copped a massive shot from Viliame Kikau for his troubles, before the combined import of these three big men ended in South Sydney glory. The first step was a rapid play-the-ball from Murray, followed by a brilliant dummy half run from Damien Cook, who drifted back in field, and showed it a couple of times, before flicking a short ball across to Nicholls. Always up for a David-on-Goliath tackle, Cleary came in low on the big frontrower, and rattled the footy free, but not without a ricochet off the arm of Martin, who’d charged up in support.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man, as Walker set his eyes on the Steeden, and dove between Kenny and Edwards to slam down a spectacular try that Latrell was always going to convert from right in front. No sooner had the Bunnies seized control of the game, however, than Milne lost it on the restart, a call that could have been challenged, as Tass got done for an early hit to grant the Panthers a full set in the red zone. Yet despite a good charge from Fish late in the count, the next two tackles quickly devolved, in a very un-Penrith-like sequence.

First, Kenny took the footy from Fish, circled around the same area on the left, and didn’t know what to do with it; then Luai booted it up the left, but got a bad ricochet that sent the Steeden spinning into touch. Ilias went for distance with his next bomb, Luai got a deft offload away to Kenny on the following set, Fish added more metres with a charge into South Sydney’s end of the park, and Cleary ended with a conventional kick that Milne answered with a truly heroic take, holding his ground to absorb the full brunt of Kikau on the chase.

Big Billy took it up a notch three plays later, slamming into Graham for a shoulder charge that saw him put on report, bumping the Bunnies up the park once again. South Sydney have been the restart experts in 2022, and they proved why here, settling into a scintillating left sweep that saw Walker and Latrell both hold up the line just long enough for Milne to pop a beautiful one-handed flick assist out to Kennar, who got it down with his right arm just before his left slid into touch, bringing them to 12-0 as Latrell made it 20 straight with the boot.

He hadn’t missed a kick since Round 23, while Kennar hadn’t even been on the first-grade footy field since his hat trick in Round 17. Not only were the Bunnies leading the Panthers by two unanswered converted tries, but they’d proved that Johnston’s absence wasn’t going to hold them back, or prevent them combining on that left wing. They got through the restart this time too, anchoring it in a gutsy Koloamatangi run, and mounted a good chase to drag Edwards a couple of metres backwards. Penrith had to find their mojo again – and rapidly.

They did so on this very same set, thanks to a mercurial Cleary bomb that arced dangerously, hung in the sky for an age, and finally forced Milne to go the way of Waqa Blake a fortnight ago, as he slid to ground in an effort to accommodate it, but still found the genius of the Penrith halfback defying him. Kikau scooped it up and shifted a sublime no-looker inside to Luai, who spent a half-second considering whether to go it alone, before surging back in field and lobbing a harbour bridge ball across to Charlie Staines, as Walker came up in defence.

Cody got both hands around Staines’ boots, for what would have been a superb ankle tap if the young backliner hadn’t landed with just enough space to reach the Steeden over the line. Yet for the second time the Panthers had a try denied, this time due to an obstruction that had no bearing on the play, while Arrow cemented this sudden shift in momentum with a brutal hit on Martin, before sending his subsequent knock-up upstairs to prove the footy had indeed gone backwards between his legs before Fish banged it forward five seconds later.

Just when Penrith looked like they might regain some rhythm, the Bunnies had hit back with one the riskier and more impressive challenges of the year, only for a Cook error to hand back a much-needed scrum from the thirty. They shifted right midway through, where a Tass-Walker combo prevented Stephen Crichton making too much headway, while the Rabbitohs defence remained just as staunch in the middle of the park, meaning Cleary had to step up with the kick – a well-weighted chip that Kennar came agonisingly close to ushering dead.

At the very last second, the chase forced him to make contact, bringing in one of the most volatile and forensic sequences of the game so far. Latrell went short, Graham touched it first, Tago got it across to Kikau, who crossed over untouched, but this would become Penrth’s third denied try of the night, and the best possible outcome for Souths, who got a penalty off it. After extensive scrutiny, the Bunker determined the footy had indeed travelled ten by the time Graham got to it, that Tago had knocked it forward, and that Kikau crossed offside.

This was a mammoth blow for Penrith, who needed a big statement on their next set, but instead barely broke the twenty by tackle three, while another try from the Bunnies now would make them impregnable before the sheds. Cook drove Edwards back three metres beneath Ilias’ next bomb, while Api Koroisau, who had come on at the nineteenth minute, fed it to Cleary for a 40/20 attempt, but without any joy. No surprise, then, the VB Hard Earned Index was all Rabbitohs, with Murray at the top of the table on a well-deserved 38 points.

So far, the Bunnies had contained Cleary well, but these  Panthers only need a slight window to get back into even the most challenging games – and they got that window a set later, off what initially seemed a fairly innocuous play from Walker, who mistimed a pass, forcing Kennar to dive on it. For a moment, this only seemed to disrupt the rhythm of this particular set, but it produced a wider momentum change a beat later, when Edwards delivered his best return, busting through a couple of players to get Staines beyond halfway by tackle two.

All of a sudden, the Panthers were in top gear again, receiving their first restart of the night a play later, off a Graham error, only for Brian To’o to lose it on the left, in a sudden implosion that capped off everything uncharacteristic about this first forty of Penrith football. The Bunnies tried to resume their own rhythm immediately, and did well with a late low Tass-Walker offload, but Latrell got a little too eager with a wide ball to Tatola, paving the way for the mountain men’s last big chance before the sheds – and almost their fourth denied try.

It came from Koroisau, who shaped to kick, and then did what he does best on the brink of half time – ran the footy, slid to ground beneath a sea of Bunnies, and was very nearly wrapped up, to the point where Ashley Klein called this no try. The Bunker rotated through every conceivable angle, before they finally got the shot that showed Api had grounded the footy in the mercurial moment before Latrell stuck his hand beneath the tip, bringing the Panthers to a 6-12 deficit as Cleary booted his first two of the night through the uprights.

They played every ball as quickly as possible on the restart, and got a boon when Koroisau found himself with no markers, but Milne was up to the catch this time – just, on the sideline, where he reached out both fingertips, and guessed more than discerned where the floater would land, before reining it in for dear life as the chase descended on him. Souths were barely at halfway by the time Ilias shot through his last bomb of the first stanza, and as Latrell surged in to meet Edwards on the return, the goal was survival – to retain that precious lead.

Fifty seconds from the siren, Koroisau lost the footy into a Cook hit, a battle of the dummy halves that gifted South Sydney one last scrum from halfway. The time was ripe for a field goal, but that hasn’t been the Bunnies’ signature this year, so they shifted it right for an absolute heartbreaker – a fumbled ball from Graham, off a poor pass from Latrell, that To’o scooped up and, after a relatively quiet night, carried the length of the field, somehow managing to fend off Walker at the forty and outpace Latrell to put down four untouched.

It would be hard to imagine a more devastating conclusion for Souths, who had been 12-0 mere minutes ago – or a more spectacular try for Bizza, who in one fell swoop levelled the scoreline to lock it all up after three disallowed tries and some of Penrith’s strangest football of the season. Not going for that final field goal had been catastrophic, so the Bunnies had to show some real character when they returned from the sheds, especially when Jed Cartwright came in high to concede a penalty on the fourth play of the mountain men’s first set back.

If Penrith scored a third successive try here then South Sydney would be hard pressed to claw back the rhythm, so it was massive when the Bunnies delivered two enormous defensive efforts – first a pack effort to hold up Crichton after Cleary put him through the line, led by some of Latrell’s best footwork of the night, and then a return to Murray’s playmaking brilliance with an individual hit on Cleary that forced the footy free. The reprieve was short-lived, however, as a head knock for Tatola turned into a forerunner of more agony to come.

No sooner had Tevita returned to his feet, and the Bunnies returned to their set, than Kikau charged down Ilias’ kick, and came close to scoring immediately on the left. Latrell followed his scintillating footwork on the last set with some of his best speed of the night now, getting on his bike to hold up Big Billy just long enough for Graham to absorb a fend as the South Sydney pack converged. Yet the Panthers had tapped back into the same deep flow that they’d rediscovered before the break, spreading it right and left before Cleary shone again.

This time he opted for a sneaky grubber beneath the crossbar, finding himself obstructed as Murray and Spencer Leniu competed for it, with the big no. 16 coming off the winner. In less than a quarter of football, Penrith had gone from a twelve point deficit to a six point advantage, and yet the Bunnies glimpsed another momentum shift with a high shot from Scott Sorensen, a scrum from the ten, and a high shot from Luai when Graham set his sights on the right – a volatile enough sequence for a minor fracas to break out on the sideline.

This had to be the comeback moment for South Sydney, and Tago knew it, picking up Graham and dragging him backwards in a corrective to Luai’s high contact, but the Bunnies still got the dropout off a Walker grubber that Edwards almost ushered into touch, contorting his body back and only just getting boot to footy on the brink of the dead ball line. Still, with Cleary going short up the middle, and Penrith getting it back, this window of cardinal and myrtle opportunity was closing. One more boost, and it felt like Penrith must score again.

Milne hit back with his most confident take of the night under the next high ball, but it wasn’t enough to supercharge the entire set, especially once Staines came in for a massive shot on Cookie that the Rabbitohs rake claimed was a shoulder charge, while Edwards continued to escalate by beating five tacklers on the next return. Three plays in and Penrith were twenty-five out from the chalk, as Leota dragged it over the ten, and Tago put down the easiest try of the night a play later, off yet another brilliantly weighted kick, this time from Luai.

The Panthers were now making up for all those disallowed tries, as Cleary made it a twelve point lead, while Souths were starting to look exhausted, with Latrell nowhere to be seen in the last passage of play. Leota was more machine than man for the opening run of the restart, bouncing off a trio of Rabbitohs defenders, while Penrith were now leading the stats, with To’o and Edwards on 205 and 160 run metres respectively, compared to Nicholls and Tatola at 104. Worse still, Tatola was off a minute later, as Arrow returned to the Accor cauldron.  

For a moment, it looked like Walker might shift the rhythm with a one-man play – a beautifully weighted chip that Cookie would have got down if Edwards had been an ounce less committed. Cleary went short with the dropout, and this time the Bunnies maintained possession, but Nathan intervened soon enough on their first sweep to the left, which he forced them to accelerate sufficiently for Staines to have time to send Kennar into touch. A high shot from Walker later, Penrith were back on the Bunnies’ line with three plays to go.

With only eighteen minutes left, there was no reason for the Panthers not to challenge a Sorensen knock-on beside the left post, but the footage showed that Nicholls hadn’t played any illegal role here. Try as they might, Souths couldn’t break their own end off the subsequent scrum, not even with a tough run from Kodi Nikorima, fresh off the bench, as To’o got down on his knees to take the bomb that Ilias launched from the brink of halfway. Edwards was now topping the VB Index at 69, while Isaah Yeo had snuck into third on 60.

The Panthers were now making it look easy, as Leniu burst into space on the next set, and was only stopped in his tracks by the most blatant swinging arm of the season from Milne,  who copped his fourth sin bin of the year, leaving the Bunnies with twelve men to face a Penrith outfit that were growing more confident by the minute. Leniu was also off for an HIA, and came close to breaking away from the trainers to give Milne a piece of his mind, as the game glimpsed a Battle of Brookvale intensity, and Cleary slotted through the penalty kick.

There was a full quarter hour of football left, but this felt like the end of the game, since with a fourteen point lead, and 26 unanswered points, only a minor miracle could dent Penrith’s advantage now. Souths lost their challenge a moment later, resulting in the most fractious scrum so far, and yet Penrith were the next team to choke, as Cleary and Edwards cleared up a mountain of space for Staines, who would have broken through if he hadn’t coughed up the football on the sideline. The time had come for the Bunnies to deliver a miracle sequence.  

The first part of the miracle was Murray returning to his feet after Kenny smashed him into Kikau for what initially looked like a certain HIA. From there, Walker sped up the play, and the Steeden changed hands about fifteen times for what would have been one of the all time team tries if the Bunnies had managed to achieve the impossible here. But their reach exceeded their grasp, while the Panthers got a dropout on their next set, as Edwards took his 22nd run to exceed 200 metres, and his men focused their attention beneath the crossbar.

Kenny started by taking a charge between the posts, and Fish followed in his slipstream by slamming to ground, forcing Souths to summon some of their clutchiest defence to hold him up. All in all, the Bunnies did well to survive here, but they didn’t complete their next set, and came close to conceding another try, as Kennar slid to ground to contain another brilliantly weighted Cleary chip, and Crichton, hot on his heels, snuck a hand around for what would have been the mercurial four-pointer of 2022 with just a little more downward pressure.

Instead, the Bunnies had seven tackles to play with – until a Murray knock-on handed them right back. Luai almost broke through on the left, To’o was just as dangerous up the middle, Fish ploughed his way to the red zone, and Penrith simply self-corrected to get the dropout after all, leaving Graham had no choice but to bump Luai’s next grubber dead with Kikau on his back. Even if Latrell and Murray built good space up the left early in the next count, Edwards contained Tass and somehow got into position to field the next high ball as well.

The game ended as it ended as it had to end – with Cleary, the king of the boot, the visionary voice of the halves, chipping for himself and converting his own try to make it 32 unanswered points. Penrith are heading to the grand final, but the Bunnies can still hold their heads high. To reach the prelims in their first year without Adam Reynolds, during Jason Demetriou’s first stint as coach, without Latrell without a large part of their season, and after losing three from four to start the year, is an enormous achievement, and a massive motivator for next year.  

About Billy Stevenson (739 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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