ROUND 4: Parramatta Eels v. Penrith Panthers (CommBank Stadium, 23/3/23, 17-16)

Penrith and Parra delivered one of the great games of 2023 on Friday night – a grand final rematch for the ages that saw the score shift from 8-8 at halftime to 16-16 at full time, thanks to a sublime Nathan Cleary two-point field goal at the death that was answered by a Mitch Moses field goal in golden point, a poetic end to one of the great battles of the halfbacks. Parra were 0/3 to start the season, and Moses had just resigned with the club, so the emotion and catharsis of those precious seconds after the final siren will live in Eels folklore forever.

This wasn’t just an emotional game but a remarkably high quality game, as close in spirit to a top-tier Origin matchup as a grand final. Parra completed a whopping 41/43 sets and the mountain men weren’t far behind on 36/41, while young gun Brendan Hands scored on debut, and Zac Hosking scored in his first appearance in the Panthers jersey, and only his fifth stint in the NRL. If possible, the game added yet another immortal moment for Cleary, while Moses was just as elite, if a little less idiosyncratic, booting bomb after bomb after bomb.

Junior Paulo plunged into Izack Tago and Luke Garner for the first charge of the night, and from there a series of former Penrith players dominated the opening set, before Sunia Teruva took the high ball and met a frosty reception from Josh Hodgson. Penrith delivered a similarly committed set, with Nathan Cleary taking his first boot just outside his own forty, before the Eels made significant headway on their first carry, with Bailey Simonsson ten metres out from halfway by tackle two, and J’maine Hopgood almost breaking through a few plays later.

Dylan Edwards contained this push in his right corner, and took another hit-up after collecting the bomb, while Cleary lobbed his second kick from much the same spot as his first. Five minutes in, and neither team had quite managed to dominate, although Parra got the first boost early in the next set, when Tago leaked a penalty for crowding, and Mitchell Moses took off, building a platform for his side’s first foray into the red zone. Clint Gutherson now misfired the cut-out to the left, and while Maika Sivo saved it, the Eels never recovered momentum.

In fact, Dylan Brown mirrored his fullback with an equally loose pass, leaving Moses fuming for the ball that should have allowed him to start a sweep to the right. Penrith were off the hook, and responded by elasticising for the first time up their right edge, before swinging back inside for Cleary to boot his first bomb within his own end. Sivo was up to it though, delivering his second save in as many minutes as he leaped up to contain the danger. Teruva didn’t have the same challenge under Moses’ next kick, as Cleary aimed his next one for a 40/20.

He didn’t quite get the angle but it was still a brilliant boot, so it was a great hitback when Simonsson put Jarome Luai in his place. The adrenalin was rising, and the crowd was roaring, as the Panthers bunched in for some of their most committed defence so far, forcing Moses to replicate his last kick, from just outside his forty, but this time down the middle, where Edwards was as reliable as ever at bringing it back. Parra were 7/7 and Penrith were 4/4, in an Origin-like grind that was begging for one team or player to break it all wide open.

That level playing field would continue to the 8-8 deadlock at the break, and the 16-16 deadlock at full time, and didn’t show any sign of being disrupted on the next set, when Cleary amped up his attack, and Parramatta’s defensive line responded proportionately, with Moses also leading an impressive group tackle to shut down some more enterprising play from Isaah Yeo as well. Mitch took his next one from halfway, Teruva made ten on the return, and ten minutes of football had passed, as Penrith spread it from wing to wing on tackle two.

The sheer speed of the play provided them with their first penalty, off a hand in the ruck from Waqa Blake. James Fisher-Harris started them off with a much-needed charge, Edwards was forced to take the tackle on the right after running behind Stephen Crichton, Yeo and Cleary swept it left only for Tago to be cleaned up by Will Penisini, and Cleary ended with a chip towards the right post, where Brown caught it clean and ricocheted off the padding to come down with Crichton on his back – a good save for the first dropout of the evening.

Sivo’s third save of the night was even better – a gymnastic display on the sideline to recover a short one from Gutho, who came close to breaking through on the penultimate play of the following set, winning himself a Mitch Kenny ruck infringement in the process. The Eels had the first full set in the twenty, so it was frustrating when the footy found the grass for the third time down this end. Still, Hodgson and RCG stabilised up the middle, and Brown dribbled a brilliant ball for Bryce Cartwright to slide along the turf for a try against his former team.

This was one of the classiest tries of Carty’s career, who read the dewy surface perfectly, using it to slide his back into Crichton and pop the footy down in one elegant motion. It was his first putdown since Round 13 2021, and put Parra six ahead once Mitch booted through the extras. They were 10/10 and had scored first on home turf, so the field seethed with blue and gold pride as Moses barked out orders on the restart, with Penisini making some strong post-contacts, and Hodgson taking the kick to land it on a dime in the far right corner.

Edwards took on a three-man Parramatta pack late in the count, while Simonsson responded with an equally gutsy effort, taking the kick with Fish charging into his face. Momentum continued to swing in the Eels’ direction with their next penalty, early in the count, due to holding down from Garner – and then swung back again when Blake got distracted at the play-the-ball and fumbled the footy in the process. Penrith packed the scrum as the second quarter loomed, and signalled their intentions with a deft Fish-Yeo offload on tackle two.

The critical play came a beat later, when Moses tried to contain Luai, and slipped off, only for Hopgood to prove his mettle yet again, with a lower follow-up effort that saw the Penrith half lose control just as Blake had a moment before. Not capitalising on that Blake error was a very un-Panthers-like move, as was Edwards missing a dangerous Brown chip to his right wing, albeit losing it backwards, where Crichton was waiting to clean it up. Cracks were starting to show, and Hopgood exploited them by coming in hard after Cleary almost coughed it up.

Nathan survived, but the ripple effect of fullback and halfback fumbles led to a Mitch Kenny knock-on a second later, as Parra got yet another incursion into the opposition twenty, and Moses built on it with a tricky grubber on the fourth, sending the footy straight past Garner with a bounce that only a chaser of Edwards’ talent would be able to pull back from a try. Still, the Eels had a restart, begging the question of how much longer the Panthers could survive these assaults on their line, especially once Moses made it two dropouts three plays in.

The kick was spectacular in itself, preceded as it was by a sharp dummy to the right, and if we needed any more proof that Moses was winning the battle of the halfbacks at this point in the game, Cleary failed to clear the ten on the dropout, setting up Mitch to knock through his next one from directly in front. Add a ruck error from Kenny, and it felt like the Eels had to score again here, as Brown showed it a few times for a searching crossfield charge on tackle four, and Moses went for a third dropout, only for Edwards to bring it back across this time.

This was the major turning-point before the break, and perhaps the major turning-point in the overall shape and structure of the game, since it was questionable whether the Panthers could have survived another bout of attack here, while a double digit lead would likely have precluded golden point. For the moment, however, it didn’t look like Edwards’ save had dented the rhythm too much, since Parra received their fourth penalty a set later, thanks to a leg pull from Crichton, and elasticized through a Brown-Moses offload out on the left.

Yet just as Moses had nailed two dropouts by kicking it down the right, so Edwards now saved two dropouts with another heroic clamber back over the chalk, paving the way for a final ten minutes that were all Penrith. The mountain men seemed to have taken on a new calm in the wake of these two saves, as Cleary started to step into the spotlight again with a dangerous chip kick to the right post that Blake only just managed to contain in a sea of pink jerseys. They were as renewed in defence too, forcing Moses to take his next one inside his thirty.

Everything came together on the next set, as Cleary achieved the footy synergy described by Cooper Cronk in the wake of his Origin III kick for Val Holmes. It was subtler in Cleary’s case though, and didn’t consist of an especially spectacular play so much as a discernible moment of vision in which he took stock of the field in a couple of seconds, showing the footy with a prescience that made it seem like he’d predicted the sequence to come, which started with Yeo bumping off Hodgson and offloading out to Sorensen through a Hopgood legs tackle.

The rest was pure rugby league poetry, as Sorensen sailed through the line and popped the Steeden back inside for Edwards, the man whose two saves had set up this Penrith surge, to cross over the line with Moses, the man who had been twice thwarted with his dropout attempts, clinging onto his back. Cleary was always going to add the extras, making it a two point game with five minutes until the siren. Parra decelerated rapidly now, from a Hodgson strip, to a Hopgood ruck error, and finally a Sivo grapple that set Cleary up for the goal.

As Cleary sailed it through the posts a second before the siren, a kind of awe settled over the park at his football vision, at that presence of mind that had allowed him to read Yeo, Sorensen and Edwards’ movements in a momentary sizing up of the park. The score was locked, then, when Penrith returned for their first carry, with Luai taking the first kick back. Gutho collected it, and rose from the Jaemon Salmon tackle clutching his neck, but without getting a crusher, as Moses capped off his first set back with a modest kick from the thirty.

The first penalty came much quicker in the back forty, as Hopgood peeled slow from Tago, and Penrith got a full set inside the Parramatta red zone, most of it spent inside the ten. Like Gutho in the opening quarter, however, Spencer Leniu passed loosely to the left, where Luai knocked on while scrambling to save it from Moses’ grasp. The Eels had gone from defending their ten to packing the scrum, and made good post-contacts up the middle for Moses to soar his next one forty metres out, prompting a spectacularly confident collect from Teruva.

Teruva took the next run as well, while Brian To’o continued to add to his metre tally, making it 37 runs now with Edwards’ contribution added to the mix. Like clockwork, Teruva took another charge to start the next Penrith set, laying the platform for Cleary to attempt his next 40/20, only to end up with a trajectory and bounce that saw the footy careen back in field. Still, it was a good kick, and was followed by a three-man pack that saw Sivo almost dragged over the sideline. Little by little, and despite the Luai error, Penrith were circling the wagons.

In fact, this was starting to feel like endurance footy, the mountain men settling in to prove that they could run it harder, faster and longer than Parramatta. Edwards experimented midway through the next set with a harbour bridge ball out to Teruva, who was cleaned up with Tago barking for it on his outside, but this kind of elastic play didn’t ultimately feel like the magic ingredient here. The game had turned into the kind of grind that can only resolved by a display of individual brute strength, whether to break the line or to force a mistake.

Soni Luke provided a glimpse of it by making fifteen metres up the middle straight off the bench, only for Gutho to set his sights on the Penrith line with a conviction that tempted marginal high contact from Crichton. For the first time in nearly ten minutes both sides got a brief breather, although they were back in the fray soon enough, as Hopgood lost the Steeden, in only the second handling error of the game for the Eels, as he was shaping to offload. Still, Parra survived, containing Cleary as he tried to dummy and break through.

Put that down to Brendan Hands, who came in low and hard just as Nathan had set his sights on the line, although it was a bittersweet victory with Hopgood copping a ricochet that saw him leave the park for an HIA a couple of minutes later. Luke was also off for an HIA, moments after jumping off the bench, as the game started to escalate into chaos football, with both sides throwing everything at the wall, and just hoping that the other would flinch first – a brinksmanship that crystallised around the first Captain’s Challenge so far this evening.

It started with a Teruva bomb to the right, where Gutho got to it first and initially seemed to have knocked it back over the chalk. The Eels sent it upstairs, though, and found that Teruva, who had joined the chase, had got a hand to it first, making for yet another thwarted dropout, but this time in Parramatta’s favour. With Luke off the park, and Kenny staring down another twenty-five minutes of football, the Panthers had never felt Apisai Koroisau’s absence more, although Cleary was doing pretty good with the clutchiest save of the night a set later.

Putting his whole body on the line, he collected the footy right on the chalk, setting up Crichton for a terrific charge to get them out of trouble, before lobbing his trickiest spiraling bomb at the end of the same set, escalating the game into a new volatility that the Eels ended up riding as soon as they got the ball back. In the most sublime sequence of the game so far, debutant Brendan Hands drifted across the ruck and passed the Steeden out for Moses, who shifted it through Doorey for Penisini to offload out of a Turuva hit for Hands to regather it.

From there, the no. 15 had clear sailing all the way to the line, celebrating his first NRL appearance in style against his previous club, and bringing Parra to a 14-8 lead once Mitch booted through another two. The Eels looked good on the restart as well, as Ryan Matterson bent the line back in an attempt to make a break, and the chase compounded a superb Moses bomb to ensure that Teruva couldn’t make a single metre. They’d led in the back forty of every match this year, and they were still 0/3, so stamina was the name of the game now.

Moses’ next kick was almost identical, as was Teruva’s take, and the pressure from the chase, while Bizza added some variation with an offload to Cleary early in the count. Cleary followed with a short ball out to Salmon a play later, but it didn’t lead to much on the left edge, so it all came down to a chip that was probably his least threatening kick of the night, all things considered, leaving Moses with more than enough time to curve around and bring it back into the fray. With Parra completing at 94%, and Penrith at 90%, this was high quality football.

Again, Moses bombed to the right edge, but this time the chase didn’t have to deliver, since the other Moses, of the Leota variety, came in fractionally after the ball left his boot. Mitch added the extras, in what would be the last Parramatta points before golden point, with sixteen minutes still left on the clock. It wasn’t the easiest angle either, but he managed to swing it around the right post, setting Penrith the challenge of recuperating an eight point deficit before the siren rang out – a challenge that Cleary would rise to in the classiest way.

The following restart was as good as the last, with RCG making fifteen up the middle on tackle two, until Moses was pressured into a bouncing grubber up the right edge that gave Edwards time and space to flick a wide one back in field on tackle one and so lay the platform for the most dynamic Penrith set in some time. Cleary shaped to run on the last, then shifted it to Luai, who lost it back to Kenny, ushering in a cascade of passes that ended with Fish kicking for himself and almost scooping the Steeden up and making the line before Gutho got him.

Gutho continued this streak with a fifteen metre dummy half dart midway through the next count, as Moses once again targeted Teruva, Teruva caught it clean, and the game continued in its groove, waiting for the mountain men, and Cleary in particular, to break it wide open. The star halfback’s next move was a towering bomb to the right, where Gutho made it a trio of heroic plays by leaping up, body on the line, to take it clean two metres off the turf. Parra might have been bunched in, but they still completed with another Moses kick to the right.

Finally, the to-and-fro was broken by Makahesi Makatoa coming in high on Teruva, gifting Penrith their best position in some time. Leota started by taking on a three-man Parramatta pack, Crichton and Zac Hosking asked questions on the right, Luai got wrapped up while trying to orchestrate a harbour bridge pass to the left, and Cleary finally brought the vision, popping a short one across for Hosking to smash over in his first ever game as a Panther, and only his fifth NRL appearance, in a brilliant riposte to the spectacle of Hands’ putdown on debut.

Cleary wasted no time booting through the two from directly in front, and we were back to a two-point game with seven and a half minutes until the siren. Both coaches were now on the sideline as Leniu dragged two defenders ten metres, and Tago required an aggressive Moses-led pack to halt his progress on the left. Penrith launched into some of their most committed defence of the night next time Parra had the ball, and while Mitch still got the kick to Teruva under pressure from Fish, the chase didn’t have time to stop him making metres now.

Yeo followed Leniu with the post-contacts, Cleary launched another enormous bomb, Gutho came up with the take of the night in the face of monster runs from Salmon and Tago, and Edwards stepped in for Teruva to take Moses’ next bomb, as if aware that the Penrith big guns had to step up with a display of leadership now. Matto was perhaps lucky not to get done for high contact on Yeo a moment later, before Luai chipped over the top, Blake leaped to catch it right on the line, and play paused briefly for Sivo to get a leg cramp attended to.

By this stage, we were in the upper echelons of rugby league, so only the most prodigious effort could win it for the mountain men now – and that effort had to come from Cleary. The Eels had completed a mammoth 39 of 41 sets when Tago put the footy down, in what would have been the final big moment of the night in any other game. Instead, Penrith defended their line valiantly, got the footy back with fifty seconds to go, and received a bump up the park when Paulo was sent to the bin for high contact on Hosking, seventeen seconds left.

This was initially called penalty but upon sending it upstairs the result was deemed forceful: Parra’s Captain’s Challenge had worked against them at the death. Penrith only had time for one more play, and it had to be Cleary’s, and it had to be a two-point field goal. He booted the penalty kick to the forty-metre line, and then notched up yet another page in the all-time rugby league annals to slot the footy all the way through the posts, raising both hands to a roaring away crowd, acknowledging he had achieved greatness in a new way this evening.

The kick itself was sublime too, a variation on the towering bombs he’d been planting in the back half that felt like it was landed from ten out rather than forty-five metres out. In spirit, the Panthers had won the game here, so it felt like they had to prevail in golden point as well. Parra had twelve men, Cleary had nabbed through the eleventh field goal of his career, and Moses had one of his most profound challenges of 2023 ahead of him, as Fish took the first charge of extra time, the crowd grew deafening, and Kenny made fifteen from dummy half.

For the briefest of beats it looked like lightning might strike twice, and Cleary might reprise his kick, but he didn’t, while Parra got a bump of their own up field when Kenny was binned for high contact, leaving it twelve on twelve. Now it was Moses’ turn to make the most of the penalty, building on Carty, RCG, Hopgood, Matto and RCG again to boot through the match-winner – and one of the all-time Parramatta wins, in one of the greatest ever western derbies, and one of the best battle of the halfbacks we’ve seen in years, rugby league at its finest.

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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