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The Falls Guy: Debutant stars as second-string Panthers cruise by Bulldogs

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3rd June, 2022
15

The Panthers have defied losing six players to Origin to defeat the Canterbury Bulldogs 30-18 at Bluebet Stadium, with half Kurt Falls enjoying a dream night on debut.

Once a teammate of Nathan Cleary’s at St Dominic’s College, he did a decent impression of his more celebrated friend, kicking five from six and laying on the first try of the night with a pitch-perfect kick for Chris Smith, as well as matching up defensively with Matt Burton and Josh Addo-Carr.

The 25-year-old, who has waited patiently for his chance in the NRL, has been a standout in NSW Cup and transferred that form to the top grade, roared on by family and friends in the grandstand.

“He had a really good start,” said Ivan Cleary. “He was busy, had a run straight away. He had a kick, a try assist and a goal all in the space of five minutes, which helps.

“Defensively, their left edge with Burto and the Foxx were always going to be a big focal point and Falls was in and around that, defensively as well.”

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For anyone who had wondered if the Panthers’ second string were better than the Bulldogs’ first team, the question was answered relatively swiftly in the first half: they are.

Some of the new faces were awfully familiar – Sean O’Sullivan, Robert Jennings, Charlie Staines and Matt Eisenhuth would all get into the Bulldogs’ team.

“We’ve got guys here that know what to do,” said Cleary. “Eisenhuth and Charlie Staines have played a lot of footy in our NRL team in the last two years. Sean O’Sullivan has played well every time he’s played for us, but you can’t fit him in the team. It’s nice for them to get an opportunity.

“If everyone is doing their job, it’s much easier for everyone to shine.”

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In truth, it was the non-Origin contingent who came to the fore. Viliame Kikau gave his new employers at Belmore a taste of what they have bought for next year, dominating the left edge in both attack and defence, while James Fisher-Harris, Dylan Edwards and Taylan May all impressed.

The Dogs did have their moments, usually provided by Matt Burton and Josh Addo-Carr, but they were fleeting and, in truth, there was always the feeling that Penrith could go through the gears if required.

This was another performance where they looked better with ball in hand than they have most of the season, but the Panthers defence, even missing a few, is still the best organised in the NRL and repelled the Dogs with relative ease.

“I’d like to think we’re getting closer,” said Mick Potter. “We’re letting teams get away from us early on, then pulling them back a little.

“We keep coming up with penalties and errors in yardage that let the other team back in. We need to build resilience in our D early on. Right at the moment, it’s not acceptable and we need to start better.

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“I think we’re breaking teams up a little bit more, and I’m actually quite happy with our attack. But we’re giving the other team too many opportunities and we’re not resilient enough to hold them out.”

Jake Averillo, shifted to fullback for the first time in place of the dropped Matt Dufty, had some shaky moments but offered plenty as well from the back.

“Jake’s played fullback in lower grades and rep footy in his younger years,” said Potter. “I’ve been keeping an eye on him over a longer period and since I’ve been at Canterbury.

“He was ready for a challenge and it was worth a risk to take. I thought, overall, he had a solid game – I know he made a couple of blues but he’s a footy player and I think he’ll get better in that position. We’ll see him there next week I think.”

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The main cogs might have been missing, but early on, the machine picked up without a splutter. Falls, playing the role of Nathan Cleary, found Chris Smith, deputising for Liam Martin, for a trademark kick try.

Despite the outs, the left edge is still together and they provided the next. They combined from deep in their own half to get Izack Tago down the wing, and he dumped inside to Dylan Edwards.

The Dogs needed a system reset, and as it has so often been this season, Matt Burton provided it. His kicking has been awry in the last few weeks, but the five eighth produced a steepling spiral bomb that bamboozled Edwards, forcing a knock on.

Burton’s left boot struck immediately, finding Josh Addo-Carr for at the corner. The winder, ditched from New South Wales’ team earlier this week, would have felt more than a little catharsis as he celebrated with his teammates.

The next passage showed everything Penrith are about. It began with a Bulldogs break, as Addo-Carr skinned Charlie Staines to get down the left. His pass inside to Averillo was batted down and the Panthers struck.

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Taylan May picked up and challenged the line, before Viliame Kikau went through another hole to scatter the Dogs’ defence. With the line speed non-existent, Sean O’Sullivan had time to float a pass back to May for his sixth in six games on home turf.

O’Sullivan was warming into the game. He slipped Kikau through a hole for the next, blowing the Panthers out to 22-6 before the break.

Again, the Bulldogs needed a spark plug, and again, it was the Burton/Addo-Carr connection that provided it. With his side getting smashed in their own end, Burton kicked early for his winger, who got the bounce and ran in it in from long range.

Burton was doing everything. After a series of somewhat directionless sets deep in Panthers territory, Jeremy Marshall-King stepped out from dummy half and found his five eighth on a crash line to get within four points.

The Panthers had lost a little of their edge, but always had another level to go to. They brought James Fisher-Harris and Moses Leota back into the fray to take control through the middle.

Results came immediately: they forced an error from Paul Vaughan, got their first good ball of the second half and Api Koroisau was able to dribble a kick through for Jaeman Salmon.

Salmon might have had another, only to be called back for a double movement, while Tago could have also had one, only for the bunker to intervene and ping him for a knock on.

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