Penrith have maintained their spot at the top of the table with a convincing 32-12 win in challenging conditions against the Sydney Roosters at the SCG.
A late first-half salvo from Jarome Luai and Api Koroisau was enough to blow open the game, which up until that point had been very close.
The night ended with Jared Waerea-Hargreaves in the bin and facing a ban after a foul-mouthed outburst at referee Gerard Sutton following an 8-point try awarded for a high tackle on James Fisher-Harris as he dove for the line.
Trent Robinson defended his player’s intentions, but not the manner in which he expressed them.
“You can’t speak that way, it wasn’t bad, but he swore … he didn’t swear at him or abuse him, but he swore,” he said.
“Jared is also right. Guys hit guys around the chops like that all the time. How many eight-point tries have we seen from guys diving into the corner and getting hit in the head?
“If that’s James Tedesco doing that tackle, he isn’t on report; that’s not a reportable high tackle.”
If there had been any chance of the Panthers feeling the heat from beneath them in the table, it was dismissed midway through the second half as they ripped the resilient Roosters apart with three tries in ten minutes, essentially ending the contest.
When the rain falls, it does nothing to stop the Panthers. They scored 32 in the pouring rain against the Storm in Brisbane last week during Magic Round, and matched that total tonight in Sydney.
It was the Panthers playing the hits: all of their back five topped 120 metres running, while the first two tries they scored were the culmination of moves started by Isaah Yeo and ended by Luai.
“I love the way the boys played tonight, it was a high-quality game,” said Ivan Cleary, returning to the coaches box after a knee operation but still on crutches.
“It was tit for tat for 25-30 minutes and we gradually got the ascendancy and were able to strike quickly.
“Second half, the possession flipped and they had a lot of the ball, we did a lot of defending, but it was a strong, committed, professional performance.
“In those games where there’s not much in it, when you get the ascendancy you need to strike. A couple of weeks ago against Parramatta, I thought we missed some of those opportunities and opened the door for them to come back in, but tonight we didn’t.
“We were wearing them down. The Roosters are a really strong defensive unit when they’ve got control and they number up well. We started to get a bit of fatigue and if you can punch holes in them when their line gets staggered then it gives you the opportunity to execute.”
The Roosters are among the best in the competition at defending their goal-line, and had to do plenty of it, but ultimately their inability to punch back cost them.
The first half saw them own just 41 per cent of the ball, far too little to make an impact, with zero play-the-balls in the Panthers’ red zone. With ratios like that, even the best sides in the NRL will eventually lose such a battle with the Panthers.
“It felt like we were ready for the contest and were getting the job done,” said Robinson. “I said to the boys that, in those games, they’re 12-all games going into the 70th minute and you work out who’s going to win from there.
“If you’re really fair dinkum about winning these games, that needs to be nil all or 6-0 at half time and you’re digging it in. It’s a wet Saturday night, 7:30pm, and you’ve got to play that style of footy: two tries and you’re in the contest, three tries and you win the game. That’s what those games are.
“We can talk about executing better, but you’ve just got to dig in, get uncomfortable and you have to go into half time with few defensive errors. That’s what it should look like and we couldn’t get into that tonight. They’re a better side than us at the moment and that’s clear.”
The indications of a quality game were there early on. A sweeping backline move – instigated by unlikely dual playmakers Waerea-Hargreaves and Sio Siua Taukeiaho – saw Joseph Suaalii free on the Roosters right, but a combination of Brian To’o and Dylan Edwards hit him hard to stop the try.
The defences were excellent. One Roosters set saw them advance from their own line to the 10m line before being forced into the kick, such was the Panthers line speed.
When the Panthers managed three sets back to back on the Chooks’ line, they were repeatedly knocked back. As if to crown a period of immense tackling, Suaalii smashed Viliame Kikau like he has rarely been hit in his NRL career. Naturally, moments later the Fijian paid the 18-year-old back in kind.
Isaah Yeo finally broke the game open. The lock came up with a now-characteristic late footsteps at the line, interesting Nat Butcher enough to create space for Scott Sorensen to streak through. He was felled by a desperate James Tedesco ankle tap but had the wherewithal to hand on to Luai for the opening on 30 minutes.
Penrith’s attack is so fluid, and despite the Roosters’ excellent goalline, they had no answer to it. The key three – Yeo, Cleary and Luai – lined up for a short side play that had Luai dummying, Luke Keary falling on his backside and the Samoa international going in for his second in five minutes.
With everyone watching Nathan Cleary pulled back for a last second of the half field goal, Koroisau would dart in from dummy-half. Even when you defend superbly against this Panthers side, you can still go to the sheds 18-0 down.
The Panthers might have iced it early. To’o broke on the left and kicked inside, but Edwards bombed the try with the line begging.
They were nearly punished: Daniel Tupou could have got the Roosters on the board, but a gang of tacklers stopped him in his tracks. Tedesco also went very close after a surging break from debutant Tyrell May.
The pressure was growing, and the game took place entirely in the Panthers’ half. That did nothing to halt the points, however. Stephen Crichton defeated Tupou in an aerial battle and went 95m to take the lead out to 24-0.
The Roosters maintained their assault and finally got rewarded. Keary straightened the play and burst the line, flicking the pass out the back to Tedesco for the first of the night for the Tricolours.
The night would end ignominiously for the Roosters. James Fisher-Harris dove for a soft try under the posts and was caught in the face on the way down by Waerea-Hargreaves.
The Roosters forward might have avoided the bin but decided to dispute the point in vulgar terms with Gerard Sutton, who sent him to have a think about his language. It was a colossally stupid moment from someone old enough to know better.
The result was an 8-point try, plus the final moments a man light. They did actually grab one back – Paul Momirovski crossing in garbage time – but it wasn’t ever going to be enough.