Cleary’s pressure, Walker’s huge mistake gives Panthers a head start

Cleary’s pressure, Walker’s huge mistake gives Panthers a head start



On the backs of Nathan Cleary’s towering bombs and defenses of brutal intensity, Penrith Panthers have won the 2021 NRL Premiership by beating South Sydney Rabbitohs 14-12.

The Panthers were the better team in terms of numbers – possession, territory, run meters, meters after contact. At all relevant markers, the Panthers owned the game.

Still, Souths refused to die. And with a bit of luck — and a missed touchline conversion and a missed 42-yard field goal in Adam Reynolds’ last games in Cardinal and Myrtle — they might have slipped away with it.

With 15 minutes to go, the scores were tied 8-all. The Panthers should have led by twenty, so heavy was their property and territory.

And you felt they knew. You felt that Penrith, after 65 minutes of effort and domination, had to break the deadlock. They had been the best team. Still, the game was below par. They needed a big game from a champion.

Instead, Cody Walker, Rabbitoh’s best player, threw a spiraling pass intended for Alex Johnston, who instead went to Stephen Crichton who ran 50 yards to score close enough to the posts.

The six-point margin was narrowed to two when Walker and Dane Gagai cornered Johnston. Reynolds’ sideline conversion went just wide.

And the black-clad Panthers held their ground despite some nervous moments.

It was a match that didn’t seem like a luminary for the Clive Churchill Medal. It was one of those games that they give man-of-the-match to an attacker. Or maybe a winger like Brian To’o for channeling a backrower. As it was, Cleary won the gong on the back of his mighty right boot.

It was a night of bombs by the Panthers playmaker. And its defenders invaded, screaming from the line. Both teams did, borderline offside. It was a brutal grand finale. The winning team effectively finished up front when the fight was over.

Pre-game drone vision showed smoke coming out of Suncorp Stadium like a smoldering volcano. Johnathan Thurston welcomed the country before we kicked off the Australian National Anthem with barely a beat. A songbird performed it, a beauty. Souths looked pumped up. The Panthers looked pumped up.

And we all got ready to mess around.

Kick off and Cam Murray’s head jerked from James Fisher-Harris first tackle, first set. Nothing came of it. In Magic Round he would have been put on a stretcher.

Panthers dominated their first offensive set and many sets after that. The exchanges were physical, intense. Everyone bombed inside. On a dry and fast track, both defenses screamed from the line.
Jarome Luai took a tackle. Knocked but didn’t. challenged. Won. Cleary bombed and pinned Penrith twice for dropouts. The first five minutes, basically all the Panthers.

Then a big play: Mark Nicholls wrestled the ball from Fisher-Harris. Walker ran to the right, fed the flanks, got no love back.

Dane Gagai fired. wobbled. Stayed up. Went off. Luai dropped it again. Won a penalty this time.

Benji Marshall came on – a left center. A target there. To’o went close. And you sat back and thought – fair old game, even 13 minutes in.

Penrith made many yards. Cleary continued to bomb. Dropout followed. And Souths kept tackling. Something had to be given. And he did: Matt Burton shot through a gaping hole to the left that Fraser Graham said he didn’t fill.

Cleary hooked on the conversion for 6-blot. And early doors looked ominous for Souths.

Jai Arrow’s first point resulted in a dropped ball and a penalty against Viliame Kikau for a headshot. Arrow gave Kikau a lip on the road.

And then Cody Walker tore Penrith apart. A dummy, a bumper, a step – he defeated three men, Cleary with a bumper that put the seven on his buttocks. And he went under the posts.

Gagai passed his main test. So did Arrow.

Penrith had thrown a lot to Souths in the first 20. Souths took it and spat it back.

It was a game, hectic, hectic. Penrith put a lot on the defensive after the contact. Cleary was given the space to play. It certainly didn’t last, especially after Blake Taaffe dropped a pass from a scrum. Liam Martin won a penalty. Cleary took the two. And the Panthers took that lead into halftime.

In the second stanza and it was more of the same. Murray won a penalty for marking a Shepherd on tackle one, deep in Panthers country. Reynolds kicked in the penalty goal. Groin injury apparently sweet.
Jaydn Su’A dropped a cold. Arrow failed another HIA test. Kikau ran off Cleary, but the pass was rolled forward.

And it was all Souths could do to hold on. They were mighty in defeat. But Penrith rightly won their third premiership.

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