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MATCH REPORT: Cleary's pressure, Walker's massive mistake gives Panthers the edge

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3rd October, 2021
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On the back of Nathan Cleary’s towering bombs and defence 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 metres, post-contact metres. On all pertinent markers, the Panthers owned the contest.

Yet Souths refused to die. And with some luck – and a missed sideline conversion and missed 42-metre field goal in Adam Reynolds’ last plays in cardinal and myrtle – they may have snuck off with it.

With 15 minutes to go the scores were tied 8-all. The Panthers should have led by twenty, such had been their weight of possession and territory.

And you sensed they knew it. You sensed that Penrith, after 65 minutes of effort and domination, needed to break the deadlock. They’d been the best team. Yet the game was par. They needed a big play from a champion.

Instead, the Rabbitohs best player Cody Walker threw a spiral pass meant for Alex Johnston that instead went to Stephen Crichton who ran 50 metres to score close enough to the posts.

The six point margin was reduced to two when Walker and Dane Gagai put Johnston over in the corner. Reynolds’ sideline conversion just missed right.

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

It was a game there appeared no standout for the Clive Churchill Medal. It was one of those games they give man-of-the-match to a prop forward. Or maybe a winger like Brian To’o for channelling 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 his defenders bombed in, screaming off the line. Both teams did, borderline offside. It was a brutal grand final. The winning team effectively ended up in front when the fight was done.

Pre-game drone vision showed smoke billowing out of Suncorp Stadium like a smouldering volcano. Johnathan Thurston welcomed to country before we launched into the Aussie anthem with barely a beat. A songbird belted it out, a beauty. Souths looked pumped. The Panthers looked pumped.

And we all got ready to rumble.

Kick-off and Cam Murray’s head jolted off James Fisher-Harris first tackle, first set. Nothing came of it. In Magic Round he’d have been stretchered off.

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Panthers dominated their first attacking set and many sets thereafter. The exchanges were physical, intense. Everyone bombed in. On a dry and fast track, both defensive lines screamed off the line.
Jarome Luai took a tackle. Knocked on but didn’t. Challenged. Won. Cleary bombed and pinned Penrith twice for drop-outs. First five minutes, effectively all Panthers.

Then a big play: Mark Nicholls wrestled the ball off Fisher-Harris. Walker ran right, fed the flanks, didn’t get any love back.

Dane Gagai took a shot. Wobbled. Stayed on. Went off. Luai dropped it again. Won a penalty this time.

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

Penrith made many metres. Cleary kept on bombing. Drop-outs ensued. And Souths continued to tackle. Something had to give. And did: Matt Burton scooted through a gaping hole on the left that Fraser Graham rued he was not filling.

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

Jai Arrow’s first run resulted in a dropped ball and a penalty against Viliame Kikau for a head-shot. Arrow gave Kikau lip on the way off.

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

Gagai passed his head test. So did Arrow.

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Penrith had thrown plenty at Souths in the first 20. Souths absorbed it, spat it back.

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It was some game, frantic, frenetic. Penrith put plenty into defence post-contact. Cleary was given space to play. It surely couldn’t hold again – particularly after Blake Taaffe dropped a pass from a scrum. Liam Martin won a penalty. Cleary took the two. And the Panthers took that lead to half-time.

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

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

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