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ANALYSIS: Cleary imperious as Panthers swipe Warriors aside en route to biggest ever finals win

9th September, 2023
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9th September, 2023
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If it wasn’t already clear, Penrith have underlined their position as the team to beat in the finals with a crushing 32-6 win over the Warriors at a packed BlueBet Stadium.

The Panthers advance to the Preliminary Finals, where they might get Jarome Luai back, and have now won seven finals games in a row – and the last four haven’t been close. This was their record margin in the finals.

They only get better and it will take a mammoth effort for them to be troubled this year, let alone beaten.

Nathan Cleary was imperious, never more so than in scoring late on with a try that looked like it should have been scored in park footy, with the ball in one hand, daring tacklers to jump at him. 

It crowned a performance in which he played in the proverbial dinner jacket, setting up almost every Panthers try before crossing himself. Ivan Cleary is running out of superlatives to describe his son.

“He played really well today, there were some really good goalkicks as well, and he kept the lead at the right kind of number,” he said in his typically understated fashion.

“I thought he defended really well, which he has done the last few weeks.”

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But, like all the best halfback performances, it came on the back of huge effort elsewhere. The Panthers suffocated the Warriors from the opening stages, dominating the field position, then the ball, then the scoreboard.

Andrew Webster knows exactly what it looks like – he was part of the team that designed this system – but stood no chance of stopping it.

Shorn of Shaun Johnson through injury, the Warriors brought all their enthusiasm, played sensible footy and were utterly powerless in the face of the Panthers.

They got a great try in the second half via Wayde Egan, but beyond that, rarely even looked like scoring, never mind challenging for the win. They go again at home next weekend, and that will be their Grand Final. 

They’ll hope for Johnson back, and for Tohu Harris to escape from a charge after being put on report for an alleged crusher tackle.

“We got a really good finals lesson that you’ve got to build pressure,” said Webster. “When you build pressure you look a different football team.

“If you look at the bits that we got wrong, Shaun wouldn’t have had any impact. He would’ve had some different touches for some different kicks at times but we had two yardage errors and offside on a kick-chase that Shaun’s not going to be able to change.”

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Penrith’s perfect strangle

There was a sequence late in the first half that told it all. The Panthers had seven of eight sets in a row, and on the one that the Warriors got, they didn’t pass their own 20m line.

It was a total domination of space. The Panthers can do this. They’ve kept sides scoreless for an entire half on eight occasions, and more often than not, that is the first half. 

Manly, the Roosters, the Cowboys and the Warriors themselves have felt that this year. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s the rear naked choke of rugby league, a slow constriction that only ends one way.

From the 12th minute until the 41st, they didn’t make a single error. The game was played almost entirely at one end of the ground. 

The Warriors didn’t really do anything wrong, and indeed, played exceptionally well in defence. But there’s no answer to the Panthers when they’re in that mood.

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Cleary was the ringleader, of course, though not in the regular manner. Today, he decided it was going to be about his running game, with two darts turning into offloads that led to tries. 

One of them, for Liam Martin, was all about his willingness to stay live, getting up after his own offload to put the backrower through. 

For all that Cleary has as much talent as anyone in the comp, it’s often overlooked just how competitive he is too. Like the team he leads, he never stops.

The trick with the Panthers is that the collective works so well that it doesn’t really require any one individual to play superbly to win.

Today, they got Cleary and Stephen Crichton in top attacking form, but it was the ancillary stuff, the consistent work of Isaah Yeo, Dylan Edwards and James Fisher-Harris, plus everyone else, that made this an unwinnable fixture.

The worry, for everyone else, has to be that any fixture against them might be unwinnable at the moment. Since losing to Souths in the opening round of the 2021 finals, they haven’t conceded more than 12 points and, in truth, haven’t looked like doing so. 

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Was this a free hit?

The Warriors would never admit it, but they might not be too concerned to lose here. If they had won, great, but that was never on the cards.

Plenty has been written about the need to do something markedly different to shock Penrith, and there was absolutely no chance of that coming from Webster’s men. 

They’ve been consistently one of the most conservative teams – at least in build-up – of any in the NRL, and that tactic has served them superbly well.

Knowing that they get a home final anyway and were going to be without their talismanic halfback, it might have been that they fancy their chances more next week.

If there is a time to play the trickshot, week one when Penrith get a second chance probably isn’t it. Whether the Warriors will ever do that – or if anyone will – remains to be seen, but it has to be in a pure knockout game.

In the end, this might serve as a warning to the rest of the competition for what can happen. The Wahs did nothing wrong, didn’t play particularly badly and did absolutely everything they tell you to do in finals.

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They got battered. Not even close. Status quo isn’t going to work here, not against the Panthers in this mood. 

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