ROUND 12: Brisbane Broncos v. Penrith Panthers (Suncorp Stadium, 18/5/23, 4-15)

Penrith were zero from four with wet weather games, but unbeaten in dry conditions, when they rocked up to Suncorp for the first match of Indigenous Round. While they maintained that trend, the scoreline wasn’t as big as you might have expected against a Brisbane outfit missing their spiritual leader in Adam Reynolds. Time and again, the Broncos heroically repelled the mountain men with their goal line defence, resulting in three disallowed tries in the first stanza, two just before the sheds, and glimpses of a sublime upset in the back forty.

Jarome Luai took the kickoff, as if determined to sink straight back into his cracking form against the Roosters last week, and the big men ferried it up the middle of the park, before Nathan Cleary took his first boot on the brink of his forty, in a tribute to the opening Brisbane defence. The Suncorp crowd went wild with Reece Walsh’s first touch, as the Broncos made it all the way to the Penrith forty, where Jock Madden took their first kick of the night, before Jordan Riki delivered a brilliant contest to rob Dylan Edwards of any opening return metres.

For the second time, Brisbane worked hard to keep the Panthers deep in their own end, so it was agonising when Kurt Capewell got pinged for a slow peel. They were inside the twenty by tackle five, as Ezra Mam read a Zac Hosking charge perfectly, and with Kotoni Staggs taking the kick behind the line, and getting his men beyond the thirty on zero tackle, the Broncos had recovered well from this early burst of Penrith position. Walsh might have been shut down by Isaah Yeo on their own penultimate play, but again Edwards couldn’t nab a return.

As Mitch Kenny sent an awkward bouncer spinning out to the right, it seemed the mountain men might spend this next set deep in their own end too – and so they did, remaining in the twenty for their first four tackles, and forcing Cleary to boot it with all his strength to reset the balance of field position. Meanwhile, Staggs was back over the ten by the final play of the next set, before Madden sent it end-over-end to the left edge, where it falconed off Stephen Crichton, but ended up bouncing at just the right angle for Hosking to take it under pressure.

As if galvanised by that bit of good luck, the mountain men settled into their first sweeping play midway through the next set, although it was quickly undercut by Luai tripping on the choppy Suncorp surface, meaning that once again the visitors didn’t reach halfway. Add to that a slow peel from Moses Leota, and it really felt like the Broncos might be the first to score here, as Payne Haas notched up ten post-contacts to hit the thirty, and won his men a restart in the process. Brisbane had a full set in the opposition red zone, and had to deliver the goods.

Capewell came close to breaking through on the left midway through the count, off a brilliant short ball from Pat Carrigan, but Crichton was waiting to cut him down – part of a sustained defensive stint in this part of the park that ended with Leota scooping up the Walsh grubber and popping it on to Edwards for a couple more metres, his first real return of the night. Even so, the Broncs had 15-6 tackles in the opposition twenty, so the momentum was still with them, with Carrigan executing his fifth charge on the following set, with only ten on the clock.

For the first time Madden’s aim with the boot faltered, as the stand-in half sent it too hard to grant the mountain men a seven tackle set, which became a penalty set when Tom Flegler swung an arm into James Fisher-Harris’ jaw. The rest was pure Penrith efficiency, as Scott Sorensen charged into the twenty on tackle one, Leota hit the ten on tackle two, and won a ruck error from Haas, and the visitors scored off the very next play – a pinpoint cut-out from Cleary to Luai, and a similar effort from Luai to Suni Turuva, who set his eyes on the corner.

Madden made a heroic effort to hold him up, but the young winger just managed to somersault his way to the chalk, coming as close as possible to a double movement in the process as Riki tumbled in on top. Cleary was always going to add the extras, and so the Panthers were 6-0, a pretty decent result for a Broncos outfit missing Adam Reynolds. They looked more confident coming out of their end too, culminating with Yeo’s best charge so far, although their speed overtook them when Tyrone Peachey weighted it too hard up the left.

It was Brisbane’s turn to get an extra tackle to play with, and they delivered one of their most elegant sequence of passes on play two, capped off by some work from Walsh and Staggs – good enough to tempt some high contact from Fish, who was immediately put on report. The hosts had their best position in a while, especially once they received six again on the cusp of the twenty off another ruck error from Leota – and then six again again, when big Moses made the same error. This had Brisbane consolidation written all over it, as Penrith dug in.

For the second time tonight, Carrigan almost delivered a barnstorming assist, this time in the middle of the park, where he flicked a short one across for Flegler to set his eyes on the crossbar from eight metres out. The mountain men closed the gap just in time, while Cleary sealed the deal by brilliantly collecting Mam’s grubber on the last, and got another confidence boost early in the subsequent set, when they appealed to the Bunker to transform what would have been the first incomplete count of the game into an illegal strip from Billy Walters.

Cleary was now in full footy flow, showing the Steeden languorously as he drifted across the defence at the ten, before slinking his way through the line and popping it back to Leota, who looked certain to put it down until Capewell muscled his way into the fray to spoil the party for his former team. This was already a contender for the best defensive play of Round 11, and with Peachey done for an offside a beat later, completely shifted the rhythm of the game. From staring down a 12-0 deficit, the Suncorp locals had a shot at levelling the scoreline now.

Instead, the most volatile passage of play so far ensued, as Lindsay Smith smashed into Walsh to prevent him busting through the line, and Mam lost the footy into a bone-rattling shot from Crichton. Before the Broncos knew what had hit them, Brian To’o was back at their forty, before a series of escalating plays started with Cleary popping the ball out for Luai on the left, where Cobbo slammed in to prevent any more damage being done. Nevertheless, Cleary kept up the speed out on the right, where he was only downed by a desperate Capewell ankle tap.

From there, the Panthers condensed all this plosive energy into a left sweep, only for Turuva to show his inexperience on the wing by losing the footy backwards off a Peachey pass. Staggs scooped it up, and yet also made the next error, before a second illegal strip from Walters set up Cleary to boot through the two. As quickly as Penrith had lost the momentum, they had recovered it, receiving their next boost when Crichton delivered his second defensive masterclass in as many minutes, by rushing downfield to hit Walsh at the end of a Cleary kick.

Sure enough, Critter forced the error, gifting his men a full set in the Brisbane twenty, as the mountain men set their sights on the posts, with Cleary taking a forward-like charge in an effort to break through a three-man pack beside the left padding. Still, the Broncos survived with some of their best goal line defence so far, including a terrific read from Herbie Farnworth on Edwards out on the right, and a heroic leap from Cobbo to take Cleary’s chip amidst a sea of Penrith jerseys, as the home crowd roared out their appreciation at the effort.

Even so, Brisbane were now experiencing some of what they dished out to the Panthers in the opening minutes, struggling to break their thirty where Madden struck it hard as possible to get them some breathing room. Hosking delivered an eccentric offload four tackles in, lobbing it out so late and so low that Cleary had to take it on the boot, before Madden delivered his best defence of the game – a desperate ankle tap on Peachey, who looked set for all money to cause havoc, or even break through the line, as Riki and Walters piled on top.

Walsh extemporised with a chip early in the next count, and while Mam came up with it, and even glimpsed a break in the line, the Penrith wall closed up soon enough. The time had come for Cleary to reassert his supremacy with the boot, and he did it by floating a wobbler high above the Suncorp turf, as if to establish a distant sightline with Penrith Stadium, and claim ownership of the park. Walsh couldn’t match it with his next kick, a relatively shallow affair, and yet the Broncos continued to defend heroically, saving a near-try a couple of plays later.

This was the apex of Brisbane’s first half, as Cleary chipped to the left edge, where it came backwards off Madden, and ricocheted towards Walsh, who got both hands to it a couple of centimetres off the turf, but couldn’t quite secure the nightmare bounce. From there, Sorensen stormed in, and actually had both arms around the footy, right on the chalk, only for Kobe Hetherington to personify commitment by wrapping himself around the big second-rower, applying just enough pressure for the ex-Shark to slightly knock on with his left hand.

The contrast between the brute strength of the defence and the minutiae of the error was quite a breathtaking testament to Brisbane’s commitment on their line, and while Critter seemed to have squared the circle a beat later, it turned into an astonishing third denied try for the mountain men. It came at the end of another Cleary kick, this time to the right, where Farnworth and Hosking competed for the footy in the air, but instead deflected it in goal, where the future Bulldog put it down without a care in the world, and claimed the try as well.

From several angles, it looked like this was a pretty secure thing, or at least that the Bunker might not be able to prove the Hosking knock-on, but one of the rotations left no doubt that Farnworth had done the job, leaving Penrith at only an eight point lead after a strong opening half of football. The last five minutes before the break were fairly uneventful, an impressive statement in itself from a Brisbane outfit determined not to let the Panthers in, apart from an Edwards break in the last thirty seconds, saved by a tough Kotoni tackle up the left edge.

Still, the Broncos hadn’t been held to nil in the opening half of a match this year, while Penrith had kept an opposing team scoreless three times so far in the first stanza, most recently in their spectacular 24-0 drubbing of the Roosters before the sheds last week. Conversely, Brisbane had been a decent second half team in 2023, trailing four times at the break, and winning two of them, against Gold Coast and St. George. Carrigan had the first charge back, his men delivered a decent set, and managed to shut down another Penrith surge right away.

Sorensen got things rolling by clearing space for Peachey to break into full stride on the left wing, and while the veteran backliner got the offload away at speed, Marty Taupau reached it first. No matter, though, since his knock-on produced a fresh Penrith set, which Luai kickstarted with a soaring ball out for Critter, who fed it back in for Cleary to dummy and muscle his way into the ten to commence the Panthers’ most sustained stint in front of the crossbars, anchored by a Liam Martin steadier that Carrington and Hetherington cleaned up.

From there, Luai made his way from left padding to right padding with a mercurial run – a crossfield run condensed to fifteen metres – that beat Walsh, but couldn’t quite defy Hetherington, before Yeo dummied and tried to capitalise on a rapidly exhausting Brisbane line, but underestimated Capewell’s effort to bring him down. With all that centre field initiative sapped, the mountain men shifted it out to the left, where Peachey put it down, though history repeated soon enough when another Taupau error got Penrith their next shot.

This cemented the start of the first quarter as a sustained period of Brisbane goal line defence, climaxing with Yeo hanging a metre over the chalk, and tempting a strip from Walsh with Riki also in the tackle. It turned out to be the tipping point for a home outfit that could only hold on for so long – and a tipping point for Cleary, who had seen two tries come apart at the back end of his boot at the end of the first stanza, so now decided to tuck the footy under his arm and bust through beside the left padding himself, in the single strongest moment of the game.

Not only did this echo Cleary’s attempt to smash over from close range in the wake of Peachey’s break, but it cancelled out yet another Penrith frustration on the line a mere play before, when Critter had come down within millimetres of the chalk, off a ball from Cleary himself, in the face of a four-man Brisbane pack. While a few Broncos got hands to Cleary as he made his way to the left post, he felt untouched, as if he’d shrugged off every defensive effort they could manage, before the kick made him the youngest player to hit 1300 points.

With the exception of a field goal from Cleary himself in the final minute, the Panthers wouldn’t score again tonight, and yet so masterful was his try here that it felt like a full stop on the game, visionary enough to eclipse whatever Brisbane might manage to put up in response. To their credit, the hosts came up with a pretty special set next time they had ball in hand, splitting the difference between chaos and brilliance to almost put down their first try of the night, thanks in large part to the most flamboyant second phase play of the game.

Staggs got them rolling with an offload to Madden, and Walsh built on it with a soaring harbour bridge ball out to Capewell, who managed to elude Crichton before Cleary finally brought him down. Haas added to the offload count with a late one back to Corey Paix, before Carrigan made it three with a flick out to Madden. Riki couldn’t make it four, but for a moment it looked like Hetherington had parlayed a footy-rattling Mitch Kenny hit into a drop out the back for Carrigan, who scooped it up in one hand and fed it on for Madden to make his mark.

This had been one of the most receptive and extroverted sets for the ex-Tiger, who now dummied and broke through the line, gaining enough pace to pop it out for Walsh to cross over the line. It should have been the moment when Brisbane wrested order from chaos, so it was pretty deflating when the replay showed that Kenny had in fact done the job, and that Hetherington had knocked on as subliminally as Sorensen had beneath him on the chalk in the first stanza. Even so a pair of uncharacteristic knock-ons from Yeo and Leota now ensued.

Those two errors were odd and clunky enough to recharge Brisbane belief, especially once Peachey made it a hat trick of mistakes by finding himself offside straight out of the scrum. Things accelerated quickly on the left edge, where Farnworth would have crossed if not for a desperate Hosking tackle, and then swung back even faster to the right, where Walsh saw Suruva was up too far, and chipped deep into the corner. Even with the positional difference, Cobbo still had to get on his bike to overtake his opposing winger and put the Steeden down.

It was a rousing statement for Selwyn after what had been a fairly quiet game in attack, even if the scoreline remained 4-14 as Staggs failed to replicate Reynolds’ magic from the sideline, while the Broncos got an augmented restart when Yeo stripped the footy from Carrigan with two in the tackle. They made good headway with each subsequent carry, until Madden chipped to the right, and Staggs looked set to make up for his botched kick by collecting the football, tucking it into his chest, and coming to ground beneath a pile of Penrith defenders.

The take and grounding were beautiful, and yet Brisbane got another taste of the Panthers’ denied try agony when we were treated to a rare disagreement between Adam Gee and the Bunker about Walsh’s involvement in backplay. Gee sent it upstairs to question whether Walsh had taken out Peachey, and then objected when the officials claimed that the Brisbane fullback only had eyes for the footy, leading to a revised ruling in which the crossover that might have levelled the score for the Broncos got Penrith the penalty they needed to recover.

The Suncorp crowd were very muted as the Panthers brought it back up the park. Three tries had been scored, five disallowed, so the next putdown, if it came at all, would be precious. Walsh’s next kick had a tricky bounce on it, but the absence of a convincing chase meant that this wouldn’t be the motivator for Brisbane, even if Walsh himself flashed back to the heroic goal line defence of the second and third quarters by chasing down a Critter grubber, and putting his whole body on the line, right on the chalk, as the big no. 4 showed him no mercy.

Edwards came incredibly close a moment later, but again the Broncos regathered, although Penrith were in full flight again on the following set, when Crichton darted his way into some metres on the right edge, and Cleary sat the chip up beautifully on the try line, forcing Staggs to bring it to ground in goal as Jaeman Salmon came in to secure the first dropout of the game. Play paused on the very first tackle when the Panthers sent a supposed Edwards knock-on upstairs, and got their second good challenge of the night to show he’d lost it backwards.

The rest of the dropout was all grunt, as Panther after Panther drove it up the middle, and then towards the line, culminating with an enormous charge from Soni Luke on the left that Brisbane only just survived. Cleary’s kick was unusually light, a loft more than a boot, and so Walsh was able to take it in the air despite being surrounded by defenders, as the hosts did well to bring it all the way to the opposition forty by the final tackle. The game now started to sediment into a set-for-set rhythm, dominated and orchestrated by the Penrith machine.

That’s not to say the Broncos had given up though, since their next defensive set was all heart. Riki started by shutting down a near-break from Teruva by dragging him over the left sideline, and while the tackle was deemed to be complete, Madden leaned into the same grunt with a bone-rattling hit on Peachey, before Riki got a chance to make his defensive statement with an equally impressive shot on Sorensen. Despite all that, Cleary, ever the magician, managed to linebreak from ten out, but with his inside ball falconing off Kenny, Brisbane still had hope.

It translated straight back into their attack, starting with a tough run from Cobbo, who slammed Luai to ground, and then built to the ultimate heartbreak of the Broncos’ night. Finding himself in the middle of the park with no clear option, Walsh extemporised a chip on the fourth, chasing it down and scooping it up right in front of Yeo, and then sending it on for Madden to make twenty and shift it out for Mam, who looked good to set up a four-pointer in the corner, or even score himself, before Critter surged in to show Brisbane who was boss.

This was the last great play of the night from a Suncorp stable who had fought tooth and nail to prevent Penrith pouring on the points, and who had come remarkably close, at certain points, to landing the comeback with Reynolds off the park. The Broncos’ game fizzled out with a high shot from Taupau, who was put on report, before Cleary put the icing on the cake by booting through the one-pointer eight seconds out from the siren – just to remind us that this is still the Panthers outfit of 2021 and 2022 at heart, one of the greatest we’ve ever seen.

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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