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Nathan's kicks the difference in Panthers rearguard action as Ivan reveals reason for Turuva absence

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27th April, 2024
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Penrith have won plenty of games under Ivan Cleary, but few can have seen them have to grit it out as much as this one.

On a hot night in Townsville, the Panthers were asked to defend for their lives, enduring pressure upon pressure from a Cowboys side that threw the kitchen sink, but repelled enough to pull off a 26-20 smash and grab win.

The hosts had 44 sets to 37, made the Panthers make 50 more tackles and won the metres comfortably – but, eventually, lost by three Nathan Cleary kicks.

Cleary, on return to the side, was perfect off the tee and pulled off a trysaver in the final minute to preserve a win that was all about guts and scramble.

Ivan Cleary had pulled Sunia Turuva from the line-up ahead of kick off, confirming that the Fijian had been left out due to the strain of his contract discussions in the week passed, but struck gold in his replacement, Paul Alamoti, who scored a vital intercept.

“Sunia didn’t play mainly because he was going through his contract decision and still negotiating,” said the coach.

“So it was something that has been going on for a few weeks. I think people don’t quite understand how much that can take out of someone, especially a young man with such a big decision.

“Not just professionally wise but emotionally. That’s why we gave him the night off.”

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“We had a rash of possession against us,” said Cleary senior on the game itself.

“The Cows started throwing caution to the wind a little bit and got repeat possession in a bunch of different ways and we were under pressure for what felt like the whole second half. We’re relieved to get home.

“It’s good to go through it and still be able to get the job done but it’s going to be a long, hard season if we do that to ourselves.”

North Queensland did plenty right before the break, but found themselves 24-4 down thanks to tries gifted to the opposition – the Alamoti intercept, Liam Martin from an error – and poor goalline, which allowed the Panthers to score on their rare visits to Cowboys territory.

From the canvas, however, Todd Payten’s men put on three second half tries to make the game very interesting indeed.

“I was pleased (at the fightback) but really frustrated too,” said the coach.

“From 24-4 down it’s a great effort but it’s still not good enough. We fell short in the win again and two freak tries to the opposition either side of half time is the difference in the end.

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“We lost three of the last four and we can’t be happy with being close.”

Kulikefu Finefeuiaki, Jeremiah Nanai and Val Holmes had given the Cowboys hope, but they hadn’t factored on a second wind from Penrith to stop the comeback in its tracks.

They also lost Tom Chester to a hamstring strain, which will give Payten headaches given other losses in the outside backs with Murray Taulagi already sidelined, though the coach was confident he could return next week.

Alamoti makes a point

Cleary opted to replace Turuva with Alamoti. In doing so, he might have gone a long way to finding his replacement for next year, with another strong performance from the former Bulldog.

Anyone who has seen Alamoti play NSW Cup knows that he’s far too good for that level, and most who saw him play NRL for Canterbury last year could guess that, at least to some extent, it was a case of them, rather than him, being the issue.

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It looked like a great pickup for the Panthers when they took over his contract and it’s only looking better now.

Alamoti was excellent tonight, actively looking for work as well as taking care of that which came his way anyway, topping 200m in carries by half time – aided by two breaks – but also taking 11 hard carries.

He had a hand in two first half tries. Though Brian To’o scored the first on the left wing, the space was created by Alamoti’s break on the right, and on the stroke of half time, he iced an intercept to move Penrith to a three score lead.

Those two moments were the bookends to a half in which the Panthers had to do a lot of defending.

Dylan Edwards, who scored the try in between, was the best of the lot, though for the first time in a long time, it actually caught up with them.

To’o, in game 100, seemed on a mission to mark his milestone and took almost 200m himself, plenty of it post-contact thanks to a huge 17 tackle breaks.

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The nature of the tries scored, not least the intercept and Martin’s, from a spilled kick, told a tale.

North Queensland did all the right things to win but were punished in tiny moments while proving unable to turn their own domination into enough results.

The Cowboys can’t capitalise

There’s a feeling that the Panthers are a machine who can defend and defend ad infinitum, but with a few missing links in the chain and a Cowboys side that really came to play in the second half, things got very tough indeed.

By the hour mark, the Cowboys had accumulated 61% of possession across the game, with ten whole sets more than their opponents and 40 red zone tackles to just eight.

That the game was still in their favour was exceptional in and of itself, a testament to the systems that Cleary has built over time.

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The Cowboys have lived on their attack all year, but couldn’t post enough from their huge advantages in field position.

They did find some joy, especially in isolating backrowers over halves: Nanai went straight through Jarome Luai and Cleary missed a quarter of his tackles, but the scramble was generally there.

The Cowboys got 20 points and were forced to work for every single one of them. Penrith put in a shift to stop North Queensland, but got their own points too easily.

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