GRAND FINAL: Penrith Panthers v. Parramatta Eels (Accor Stadium, 2/10/22, 28-12)
All the ingredients were in place for a classic grand final at Accor Stadium tonight – a Battle of the West, the first ever pairing of Penrith and Parra in the modern NRL, an apparently insurmountable season from the Panthers, the spectacle of the first blue and gold premiership in 36 years, and the first Parra appearance in finals football since the fated 2009 game against Melbourne. Add Ivan Cleary’s 200th game as Penrith coach and Mitch Moses’ heroism last week, and this was guaranteed to be one of the great all-time footy spectacles.
However, the nature of that spectacle was more unpredictable, since Parra ended up with so little chance here that there was no real suspense about the outcome – just the staunch, sobering and sublime spectacle of a Panthers outfit that have scaled ever-new heights over the last three seasons, but somehow still managed to hit their best forty minutes of football in the first stanza tonight, decimating Parramatta so thoroughly that they had all but ensured themselves one of the great premiership defences by the time they headed to the sheds.
Put that down to a near-perfect game from Nathan Cleary, and to the apotheosis of Dylan Edwards’ vision over the last month, which would win him the Clive Churchill Medal tonight, and provide us with the greatest chase and defensive gesture of the game. More than merely winning, and more than becoming the next NRL team after the Roosters of 2018-2019 and Broncos of 1992-1993 to go back to back, Penrith sent a challenge to the entire league tonight – to envisage a team that is worthy of competing with them in a grand final to begin with.
Clint Gutherson took the kickoff, James Fisher-Harris had the opening tackle, and the Panthers delivered a series of strong charges to arrive at the brink of halfway, before Nathan Cleary took his first boot just beyond his forty. Parra were briefly slowed down by a three-man hit on Bailey Simonsson, but Junior Paulo made up for it with a monstrous charge to rech opposition territory, where Mitch Moses took his first kick of the evening. Again, Penrith were kept in their own end, with Jarome Luai getting boot to ball just before halfway.
Meanwhile, Maika Sivo supercharged the next set with a massive run, a night before his 29th birthday, as the Eels got Moses in place for another bomb from the Penrith forty. Dylan Edwards now tried to shimmy his way through the line, and break the game open, but was felled by the full force of Reagan Campbell-Gillard, so Cleary stepped up with his first soaring bomb of the night, and found Gutho more than up to the challenge. Still, it forced Parra to work it out of their own end, where Dylan Brown copped a bone-rattler from Moses Leota.
Even so, he managed to get the pass away, and the Eels didn’t do too badly out of their first set in their own end, while Edwards made good on his earlier run by bringing the footy over halfway for the first time tonight. Liam Martin came close to a break further up the right side a play later, before the mountain men parlayed this newfound rhythm back to the left wing, where Gutho scrambled to clean up an Izack Tago dab on the ground. This was becoming a war of attrition, as Shaun Lane and RCG absorbed a couple of big tackles out on the left.
Like Penrith before them, Parra went wing-to-wing, as Moses now took a run up the short side, unleashing a new dynamism that momentarily got the better of Gutho, who knocked on a beat later in the first error of the game. Leota was having a monster start, carving his way up the middle and slamming straight into Reed Mahoney to set up the Panthers for their first stint in the Parramatta red zone. No sooner had they arrived, however, than Maika Sivo cleaned up a loose ball, and Leota took out his irritation with the first penalty of the game.
The flop galvanised Parra into their first really adventurous play – an early bomb from Dylan Brown that Moses came agonisingly close to collecting on the bounce. This deflated the Eels for a beat, forcing Moses to boot his next one from his thirty, while the Panthers elasticised in response, delivering their first brilliant combination on the very next set, starting with a mercurial sweep to the right, where Edwards, who had been yearning for a visionary play since kickoff, now delivered the first truly inspired pass, and the first assist of the evening.
Dummying as if to complete the sweep, he shaped for the right only to pop it back into the palms of Stephen Crichton, who busted through a desperate Gutho ankle tap and split the difference between RCG and Mahoney to plant down the first try of the 2022 Grand Final. Leota was a wrecking ball on play one of the restart, and took another charge on the third, before Penrith leaned back into their right side play, where Martin paired Edwards’ assist with his own near-break earlier in the game by almost breaking through the Parra defence now.
The Eels survived, but not as convincingly as earlier in the game, before offering their messiest last tackle option on the next set – Sivo hanging on for dear life when he took a Gutho ball on the left sideline, and Gutho only realising it was the last late in the next play, when he booted an oblique one out to the right edge. Martin now made it a hat trick of near-breaks up the right, coming closer, and from closer, this time around, and ushering in Penrith’s first real stint on the Parramatta line, where Shaun Lane saved the day by taking Cleary’s first poor pass.
With the Steeden travelling too far back, Leota had to bat it to ground, leaving it open for Lane to swoop. Moses got to his first kick in Penrith territory in a while, but the chase didn’t match it, leaving room for Edwards to almost execute another spectacular play, as Api Koroisau came onto the park, seventeen minutes in, right in time to celebrate the Panthers’ second try. Like the last one, this was all elasticity, although this time the mountain men only had to complete the sweep, rather than use it as a decoy, to secure themselves the four.
In fact, the decoy now came in the midst of the sweep, as Viliame Kikau took a brilliant deception run to draw in Moses while Cleary shot a superb cut-out to Luai, who got Tago in place to send Brian To’o across untouched in the left corner. The only solace for Parra was that Cleary missed the kick, keeping it a ten point game, so they had to hit back quickly, since a quarter of football had elapsed by the end of the restart without a single blue and gold point on the board. Just to add insult to injury, Kikau trampled over Moses midway through too.
That was just the prelude to one of Penrith’s most challenging sets so far, as Cleary made up for his missed kick by breaking through the line and almost hitting the chalk, and Koroisau set up the first dropout of the game with a mercurial grubber to the right corner. With Gutho sending it out on the full, Cleary came full circle from his missed kick, popping through the penalty goal to make it a two converted try lead after all. Penrith had 467 to 298 run metres, and 60% of possession, but Parramatta have showed they can hit back quickly this season.
Fish took one of his hardest and fastest charges two tackles into the restart, getting thirty metres on the fly before he banged into the defence, while Cleary hung another eagle-eye kick over Accor, and Gutho again proved himself capable of taking it. There was no chance of a return, however, meaning Parra spent most of this set in their own thirty, which is where Moses ended up getting boot to ball as well. By contrast, Tago played the first ball at his forty, Scott Sorensen tumbled to the red zone four tackles later, and Penrith tightened the screws.
They got a restart for their first full set in the twenty, as Charlie Staines almost broke through a desperate Parra pack on the right corner. Two plays later, they received another six again, for their first full set right on the blue and gold line. This felt like a turning-point for the Eels, as they absorbed wave after wave of Penrith defence, but still had a challenge on their hands when Bizza proved uncontrollable on the right, showcasing some of the most mercurial footwork so far to get himself in place for a grubber that produced yet another dropout.
Three plays later, Cleary slid to his knees to shift the footy out to Kikau, who would have crossed over if not for a desperate trysaver from Moses, but the floodgates had opened now, and by the time that Sorensen chased down a Cleary grubber, there was nobody else on the chase, let alone waiting beside the right post to hold him up. This was pretty clinical football, even for a grand final, bringing the Panthers to eighteen unanswered points as Cleary booted through his easiest kick of the night, and Parramatta steeled themselves for the comeback.
No sooner had Tago got a penalty for crowding, two sets later, than Lane handed one back for an obstruction, and this hyper-efficient Penrith outfit almost scored their next try off it. Cleary was the man again, slotting through a grubber that Luai chased down, and would have taken on the bounce if not for some desperate defence from Gutho, who knocked on in the process to gift Penrith a scrum from the ten. Isaah Yeo tried to channel the same initiative with a charge on play one, but Ryan Matterson and Mahoney combined to shut him down.
With less than five minutes on the clock, this Mahoney-Matto combo had momentarily staunched the Panthers’ flow, as a Crichton error stopped them doing anything more with this close-range assault for the moment. Spencer Leniu nearly broke through the line on their first foray into the thirty, and Kikau, like Luai before him, came agonisingly close to a miracle grand final try, this time off a Luai grubber that he toed a second time, chased down and would have grounded right on the line if Waqa Blake hadn’t got a miracle grand final trysaver.
The ex-Panther literally popped the ball out of Kikau’s grasp at the death, and while this was a dropout, Gutho got the short kick right this time. The Eels had the ball back, got a bump up the park off some dangerous contact from a frustrated Luai, and had one last set to get points on the board before the sheds. It all came down to a Moses chip from the right edge that Luai leaped up to take on the full in a sea of blue and gold jerseys, where he grabbed it from Isaiah Papali’i’s grasp, and ensured that his team’s points would remain unanswered at the siren.
Penrith had summoned their most clinical and brutal first forty of footy this year, so Parra had to make a big statement from their first set back. Nathan Brown took a big run, Lane came close to an offload to Simonsson, Moses sent it end over end, and the Eels delivered a decent chase, but these small advances dissolved into a Matto crusher on Edwards. After taking a while to hit Parramatta territory in the first stanza, Penrith had their opening set of the second entirely inside Parramatta territory. The blue and gold survived, but trapped on their line.
More unforgiving line speed from the Panthers meant Moses didn’t break his own thirty before he got boot to ball, while Crichton and Edwards had another combo midway through the next set – Stephen up the right, Dylan darting back in field – although it didn’t lead to any points for the moment. Still, Penrith got their next shot immediately, as Blake put it down in his own ten in the midst of fending off Sorensen. With a scrum from the ten, it felt inevitable that Penrith would score here if Parramatta didn’t serve up something special in defence.
Will Penisini and Moses combined to hold up Tago on the left, Brown and Simonsson were just as staunch when Martin took a crack on the other side, but all the Panthers had to do was shift it back to the left again to reprise their sublime shift of the first half – or almost reprise it. Again, Cleary and Luai combined, and again Kikau’s encounter with Moses played a pivotal role in clearing up space for Tago, who delivered an even more mercurial assist this time, a split-second tap-on that slammed Bizza across in the corner for another four points.
Rather than run the decoy seamlessly, however, Kikau appeared to have obstructed Moses, so it was confounding when the call came down that he had made his way through the line by the time the Parramatta halfback committed to the tackle. Of all the Penrith tries so far, this was the bitterest pill to swallow – the most contentious, a direct response to a Parra error on their own line, and a probable tipping-point in putting the blue and gold beyond any hope of a comeback. They had to to hit back hard, hit back big, and hit back immediately.
What they didn’t need was for Penrith to win a challenge a moment later to (dubiously) transform a Cleary strip into a loose carry from Lane. The replay showed that Cleary had banged into Lane one-on-one, while the Bunker read the footy as going backwards, even though it looked forward – the second rough call for the Eels in as many minutes, and the first time it really looked like the game might explode, as Cleary, Gutho and Moses traded barbs in the middle of the park. Things were devolving now, thirty minutes from Penrith glory.
That said, the mountain men got a blow shortly after, when Tago smashed hard enough into Mahoney for an HIA, bringing on Jaeman Salmon for his grand final debut. Parra took advantage of the lull by showcasing some second phase football, with a very late offload from Matto to Mahoney early in the count, and, with six again a tackle later, this might well be the turning-point for a blue and gold army hungry for points. Four plays later, inside the ten, Nathan Brown popped an offload back to Mahoney, and the Eels started to consolidate.
This was one of the first genuine assaults on the Penrith line so far, so it was dispiriting to see how clinically the mountain men ended up containing even this anomalous period, and right as it was peaking as well. They cleaned up the final play on the right, news came down that Tago only had a Category 2, and would return soon, and yet Parra got another six again late in their following set. They swept early in the count, and returned to the same expansive play on the last, glimpsing their first try only for Sivo to make the most diabolical error so far.
A few metres out from the line, he only had one more line of defence to break through, but it proved to be the killer, as Crichton, the man who had scored the first try, prevented Parra’s first real shot at a try with a rollicking low hit that forced Sivo to cough it up on the chalk. More than any play so far, this felt like the death knell, especially if the Eels couldn’t score before the third quarter ran down. Their last chance came two tackles into the next set, when RCG popped the offload out to Mahoney, who came with his most enterprising play so far.
Showing it a couple of times, Mahoney considered a break, and then opted to boot it. Simonsson read the park brilliantly, scooping it up, outpacing Staines, and glimpsing the try line sixty metres away, only for Edwards to deliver the defining Penrith play of the game, the year, and the Ivan Cleary era, capping off three seasons of brilliance by not only bringing Bailey to ground, but shoving him into touch from five metres in field, before rising to his feet in a roar, and banging his chest as Panther after Panther piled in to offer their congratulations.
It was the gee up moment of the night, the spiritual sequel to Scott Sattler’s 2003 grand final cover tackle, and the the point where Penrith achieved the sublime belief and preternatural footy flow that has made them arguably the greatest grand final contenders to ever play in the modern NRL. More than enough, then, to usher them into another try on the very next set, as a beautiful pair of passes from Yeo and Cleary set up Edwards for more brilliance – holding up the line just long enough for Staines to slide away from Gutho, break past Dylan Brown, and come down, back to the chalk, half a metre out.
As he reached out his right hand to slam the Steeden to earth, he made up for missing Simonsson on that last run, and in doing so leaned into the flow of Edwards, who had set up this play as well, proving the Panthers had enough spirit now to correct even the most trivial of misses. This was the Penrith power that has awed the NRL in 2022, reaching its apex in the final quarter of the grand final, so even a consolation try was starting to look like a big ask now, especially when Parra lost their challenge in an effort to dispute a Gutho knock-on.
They got their next shot with an uncharacteristic pair of Penrith errors – a mistake from Koroisau followed by an offside for Tago, but Blake proved to be just as frustrated on the right edge as Sivo was on the left, chasing down a Moses boot but fumbling it on the side to grant Edwards yet another scintillating return, straight through the Parramatta line. Three tackles later, RCG got done for high contact, and so the mountain men were back on the Eels’ chalk with half a set up their sleeve, as Cleary’s boot did the job again, forcing a Parra knock-on.
It was surreal to think this was a grand final, and notionally the best two teams in the league, since Parra were in pure survival mode now, galvanising Moses into his most grinding defence of the night – around Cleary’s waist, on tackle in, to prevent the best halfback in the world from reaching his half century try. Even then, Nathan lost the Steeden a mere millisecond before he got it down, but in this game that was a minor victory, or perhaps even a major victory, for an Eels outfit that had genuinely seemed like contenders at the opening siren.
If anything, the Panthers had used the grand final to prove that no team is really worthy to go head to head with them in a grand final – that even the outfit who had beaten them twice in 2022 aren’t the competitors they genuinely deserve in this greatest of rugby league fixtures. The challenge of the NRL over the next few years will be to craft a team commensurate to Penrith, but with that future unwritten, all that Parramatta could do now was to weather the present as it became history, as the prelude to that football future.
They got a brief burst a minute later, when Dylan Brown tucked it under his arm, broke the line, hit the ten, and won six again, but it came apart with a Sivo error, while To’o reserved his best run for the 73rd minute, when he bumped off Moses and Papali’i and tempted the toughest tackle of the night from Gutho, who almost did a backflip to absorb the brunt of big Bizza’s charge. Even then, he stuck a hand in the ruck, but it didn’t matter much now, and nor did a penalty from Cleary, who could only grin on the brink of a historic grand final victory.
Finally, with less than four minutes to go, Papali’i dodged around some tired defenders, and shifted it out for Gutho to continue the momentum of his hit on To’o by breaking through the line to score beneath the posts. Moses added the conversion from right in front, and the Eels had valiantly avoided becoming the first grand final team to be held scoreless since Manly beat Melbourne 40-0 in 2008. By this stage, however, Ivan Cleary and Greg Alexander were already on the sideline, congratulating the troops as the game reached its final moments.
Yet Parramatta had one more riposte, as Moses booted a short one from his thirty, Papali’i took it and offloaded it back to Mitch, Mitch popped it out to Penisini, and Penisini lobbed it off the side of his boot for Jake Arthur, fresh on the field, to down with Edwards on his back. It was a nice moment for the Arthurs, even if it only cemented the bond of the Clearys, and the most sublime and sobering takeaway from this instantly iconic grand final – that Nathan has now outpaced Greg Alexander to become the greatest Penrith halfback of all time.
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