It was third time lucky. Three times with the game on the line, Souths sent their play the ball to the right tramline, three times they hit left with men in motion and on the last of them, they made it.
Twice it had been Nathan Cleary who made the spectacular, Sattleresque – son not father – tackle, but he was left despairing in his dive at Isaiah Tass. 20-18 was the final score.
Make no mistake: these are the best two teams in the NRL. If we don’t see this again in the first weekend of October, one of the other 15 will have put on a mammoth effort.
It was a game of excellent quality, with both sides throwing all they had in attack and being met by everything the other had in defence.
Stephen Crichton, who scored three tries and all the Panthers’ points, did not deserve to be on the losing side. Neither did Cleary, who was battered and bruised but came up with what looked like the winning play twice. He went into the game injured and didn’t kick goals as a result, though father Ivan suggested it was minor.
Until Latrell Mitchell intervened, at least. And Cam Murray, Lachlan Ilias, Cody Walker and Alex Johnston, who proved that the famous Souths left edge can do it against the very best, with the game on the line, when it matters most.
Mitchell was worth two tries in a typically heroic showing. It’ll be lost in the rundown from the hour of footy that followed, but his offload that created Souths’ first try was as good a piece of individual daring as you’ll see. Manly had criticised. Not anymore.
Cast your mind back three weeks and Trell Mit was coming in for plenty of fire. Since then, he’s scored six in three, including a hat trick against the Dogs in his 150th and a domineering display tonight.
It’s all well and good having a system that you trust, but it helps having a character who can impose himself on the best team in the league like this.
“He had some real energy about him,” said Jason Demetriou. “He brings us a dimension that’s sometimes unstructured, when he’s playing through the middle with offloads and supporting people, it starts generating some ruck speed and gets us playing on the front foot a bit.”
Demetriou would have been proud of the performance regardless of the result, but Souths are sick to death of being valiant losers against Penrith. Now, they’re not.
The final play, a classic sweeping Souths move, was the sort that they will have practiced a thousand times at Redfern but finally called upon with the game on the line.
“It’s what they practice over and over and over again to get it right in big moments,” said Demetriou.
“Penrith are a team where we can’t hope that one play is going to win the game. We have to thrown multiple plays and move the ball multiple times and keep going not matter how many times they shut us down.
“We have to keep challenging one of the best defences the game has seen in the last decade. We’re not going to one out up the field and hope that Penrith miss a tackle, because they just don’t do that. You need to break it up.
“We’ll get a lot out of it because it’s something we talk about a lot, but to do it in the big games, you really get some confidence out of it.”
It’s a game in which both sides go home happy. Ivan Cleary will be miffed that, for the fourth time this year, his side lost a close one, but proud that they never, ever go away.
“We knew exactly what they were going to do,” said the Panthers coach of the final play. “We kind of covered it but never wrapped the ball up.
“I thought they were really good tonight. Their skill players came up with some big plays. We played them a few weeks back and they weren’t coming up with the plays on that night. Tonight they did at some key moments in the game.
“It could have gone either way but it doesn’t feel any better. Wins and losses come and go, but what you’re made of and the culture of our club, I’m still proud of it and tonight was no different.”
Souths came into this game with a serious plan. They go about the business of grinding differently: where Penrith generate their metres from their backline and save the forwards for tackling, Souths tend to favour their big men in the middle.
Dutifully, they picked a three and a half forwards on the bench – Jed Cartwright has been known to moonlight at centre – and got about winning the middle.
Prior to their opener, it wasn’t necessarily working, with the Panthers gradually winning an extended, near-20 minute long grind, but Souths were constantly trying to throw things at the defence to see what worked.
There were early kicks from both Walker and Ilias that disrupted the rhythm. There was a clear desire to get to their points, even from deep, and put plays on. They were never playing merely to complete sets, but complete they did.
Eventually it paid off. Latrell’s pass that won the field position was the kind that no other player even tries, and likely, that no other team empowers their player to try. Once Souths got to where they wanted to be, they struck immediately through Damien Cook.
It’s not good enough to just try and outgrind Penrith. They’re too good at it and will beat you. Even on their worst day, as Newcastle found out last week.
You absolutely cannot switch off against Penrith. Souths were well on top, ending the first half with Campbell Graham held a yard from the Panthers line. It’s exactly where they would want to be with 60 seconds to play.
Yet this team doesn’t stop. Souths’ defence got them to 39 minutes in front, but for the third time in a row, they went to the sheds level thanks to a Panthers try just before the break.
By the end, though, it was the Bunnies on top. Penrith kept on going to the end because they always do, but the confidence in Souths to keep trying to play their football – not panicking, but playing the way they always do – was the difference.
With six minutes on the clock, Murray turned down an easy two points and chose to run it. They didn’t score. The mentality of doing that, when all logic would suggest edging ahead, was still there at the end. Souths could have tried to set up a two point field goal shot. Instead, they played to their points, put on their move and got a try.
The question that the Bunnies have faced in their lengthy losing streak against the Panthers has always been about their defence. Nobody doubts that the Bunnies can look good in attack, but Penrith are the league’s standard in defence and have been able to stay in it long enough to win in the end.
Tonight, that was different. Souths endured a now-traditional wobble either side of the break and went 13 minutes completely inside their own half, with the Panthers enjoying six sets’ worth of good ball. They came away with nothing.
The Panthers, as mentioned, don’t stop. They conceded a try of their own, but never deviated from their plan and just built and built pressure. South Sydney, still, kept them at bay, but eventually gave themselves too much to do and conceded.
Then, they conceded again through a slightly fortunate bounce that gave Crichton his hat trick. Penrith are relentless and played relentlessly.
On another day, however, the Bunnies would have crumbled. Plenty enough pressure came and there was more than enough reason for it all to go wrong.
It’s times like this that clubs build systems for. Penrith know theirs and won’t deviate because of this or anything. That’s why they’ll be there at the end. Everyone knew Souths had an attack, but tonight showed that they have a defence too.
Normally, the most hyped battle will be two intimidating props bashing going mano-a-mano or two masterful halfbacks leading their sides around.
Tonight, however, the best two players on the field went straight up against each other with Campbell Graham and Sunia Turuva.
It was guaranteed that they would both get plenty of traffic, too. Turuva has fielded almost every kick that Panthers have received all season, partly because he’s new and everyone wants to test him out but also because nobody wants the ball to land on Brian To’o or Dylan Edwards. They might start to think again: 150m with eight tackle breaks will do that.
Graham doesn’t get the kicks, but it’s guaranteed that Taane Milne does given his history of dropping bombs, particularly those kicked by Nathan Cleary.
The centre is the lynchpin of Souths’ backline carries and invariably takes the tough carry after Milne has had the ball dropped on him a great height.
There were plenty of tough, tough runs to be taken and there can be few outside backs in the NRL who so consistently find their front and, usually, carry a few with them. He made 125m with the ball, and almost half of them were post-contact. That tells you plenty about the sort of runs Graham was taking.
It didn’t end well for Turuva, however. He was limping badly at the end after turning badly on an ankle.