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The Roar


'Duty to bend' debate over Walsh hit overshadows 'absolute genius' Cleary torturing Broncos in statement Panthers win

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21st March, 2024
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Just like he did in last year’s epic Grand Final comeback, Nathan Cleary mesmerised the Broncos with his array of tricks to lead the Panthers to an emphatic 34-12 triumph at BlueBet Stadium on Thursday night.

This time around there was no trophy on the line, just two competition points for a Round 3 clash at Penrith, but he had Brisbane’s defenders spellbound yet again as the premiers cashed in on an unfortunate early incident involving Reece Walsh.

The star fullback was ironed out by Panthers centre Taylan May in the fifth minute in a sickening head clash and the home side exploited the rejigged Brisbane backline from that moment onwards. 

Walsh was split open and after being taken off for an HIA, he never returned despite passing the concussion test due to blurred vision. 

Duty to bend ruling causes controversy

Referee Sutton controversially penalised May for the hit on Walsh even though it was clearly accidental.

May rushed in to blindside Walsh on a sweep play to the right edge, colliding with his opponent just after he had passed the ball wide. 


Play was allowed to continue before Sutton returned to the point of impact at the end of Brisbane’s set and after getting advice from the Bunker, penalised the Panthers, saying May had a “duty to bend” when making a tackle to avoid high contact. 

Reece Walsh (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Reece Walsh (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

“You haven’t bent coming into the tackle. You’ve got a duty to bend to avoid contact,” he lectured May while Panthers captain Isaah Yeo looked on in disbelief.

Record-breaking former Storm star Cameron Smith could not believe May was in strife. 

“Well, if we officiate that way, we could penalise every tackle. That’s just incidental,” he said on Nine commentary. “They had very little time. Both men travelling at high speeds and you don’t really have too much of an opportunity to make a late decision like that. I’m perplexed at that decision.”

Canterbury general manager Phil Gould was another who could not understand Sutton’s logic, posting on social media: “Duty of care to bend your back?????”


Over on Fox League, premiership-winning halfback Greg Alexander claimed the ref wouldn’t have blown a penalty if not for the stream of blood which cascaded from Walsh’s split melon. But he is the deputy chairman of the Panthers board so he was hardly going to throw the book at May.

Former NSW coach Brad Fittler disagreed with the criticism of Sutton by saying May had “a responsibility not to make contact with his head”.

“He saw Reece Walsh the whole time. And he’s got a responsibility to be a little bit safer.”

Walsh’s HIA was delayed while he was having his facial wounds bandaged, costing the Broncos an extra interchange and although he eventually passed the neurological test, he failed a sideline catching examination.

He struggled to collect practice passes sent his way late in the first half and headed back up the tunnel with the swelling ensuring that he was no chance to make a brave comeback. 


By full-time the eye had totally sealed shut and Walsh’s previously unblemished face was sporting several stitches.

“He’s not too good in there. He’s having trouble seeing,” coach Kevin Walters said. “He’s got a big gash. He tried to get back on but he just wasn’t right to go so we pulled him from the game.”

Panthers coach Ivan Cleary said he was “not too concerned” that May was placed on report.

“No one wants to see some of the best players go off but I thought it was an accident. I actually thought he was trying to pull out of the tackle,” he said.

“He was directly upright which is not how you tackle. If he had have bent down which I think the Bunker was suggesting that he should have, he probably would’ve hit him in the head with his shoulder which is not what we want.

“Reece Walsh moves pretty fast so these things happen and it was unfortunate.”

PENRITH, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 21: Izack Tago of the Panthers celebrates scoring a try during the round three NRL match between Penrith Panthers and Brisbane Broncos at BlueBet Stadium on March 21, 2024 in Penrith, Australia. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Izack Tago celebrates scoring. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)


Cleary presents danger to Broncos

Brisbane actually started this match as the dominant side even though they went into the match without Adam Reynolds and Payne Haas due to knee injuries and Walsh lasted only a few sets. 

But at the first sign of trouble in the form of a handling error and subsequent penalty, the Panthers pounced. 

Second-rower Brendan Piakura switched to centre so Selwyn Cobbo could slot in at fullback with Walsh off and Cleary sensed a weakness to exploit.

He struck first in the 14th minute when he targeted Brisbane’s makeshift left edge to present winger Sunia Turuva with an unmarked run to the line with a precision cut-out pass. 

Cleary went that way again in the 22nd minute for Izack Tago to use his pace advantage to get past Piakura for a 10-2 advantage. 


Panthers hooker Mitch Kenny had a sniff of white line fever in the 25th minute as he bounced over the stripe in a Cobbo tackle. 

It looked like a double movement as he reached out but going for this line did not get him in troubleeee with the trolls in the Bunker. 

Cleary resumed his stranglehold on the Brisbane left edge a few minutes before half-time when he drifted to the right, showed the ball, faked a long pass and hit Tago with a short ball as Piakura engulfed the halfback to give his grateful centre an untouched stroll for his second four-pointer. 

“That is just absolute genius,” gushed Immortal halfback Andrew Johns on Nine. “It does not get any better.”

Nathan Cleary claimed in the post-match chat that he didn’t deliberately head towards Brisbane’s rearranged edge while Walters said his team did not cope with the changes while admitting he needed to pick a bench with more versatility to cover all options.

“When you make those adjustments as a team we didn’t handle that too well. We tried to do things as individuals which was never going to work, both in defence and attack. Before we knew it the game was gone,” he said.


The 22-2 half-time advantage became six points greater in the 46th minute when Cleary steered the attack left for variety, resulting in Brian To’o sliding over in the corner.

By the 50-minute mark it was 34-2 after the Panthers virtually repeated the same attacking movement for To’o to burrow through three would-be defenders. 

Brisbane pegged back the deficit with a try to Deine Mariner midway through the second half. May was on the receiving end of a head clash this time around when he copped some friendly fire from Dylan Edwards in trying to prevent Mariner touching down and was taken off for an HIA.

The visitors reduced the deficit to 22 when Jesse Arthars capitalised on a blatant forward pass from Ezra Mam to Piakura in the lead-up for a long-range try.

They did well to ensure the three-time premiers did not rack up a cricket score on them but with their three most impactful players in Reynolds, Haas and now Walsh in the casualty ward and a 1-2 record to start the season, Brisbane face a critical couple of weeks against so far unbeaten teams North Queensland and Melbourne in the next two rounds.