The opening game of round seven of the NRL thrust the Penrith Panthers and South Sydney Rabbitohs together as third took on eighth in the shortened season. There were three ladder points between the sides coming into the game but both sides showed good form last time out in recording victories.
The bookies couldn’t choose between the two outfits, and the stage was set for an exciting Thursday night clash. The Rabbitohs won both meetings last season but by margins of just a single, and then four, points.
A late change for the Panthers saw Brent Naden take the place of Josh Mansour who had picked up a knee injury just ahead of the clash. The Rabbitohs made two changes with Hame Sale and James Roberts both being called onto the bench in place of Patrick Mago and Tom Amone.
Six minutes on the clock and the Panthers scored the first try of the game. A kick from Nathan Cleary was knocked back to Jarome Luai who found Brent Naden with the pass to go over in an acre of space down the right wing, the late replacement repaying his recall. Nathan Cleary hit the upright with his kick, the ball bouncing away from the goal.
It took twenty more minutes for the Panthers to double their lead, thanks to Stephen Crichton winning the race to touch down a Luai kick through ten in from the left touchline. The pressure had finally told and when Cleary missed a far simple chance at the extras, Penrith 8-0 up.
The Rabbitohs should have been back in the game but an awful forward pass from Alex Johnston, with two players in scoring positions inside him, brough the attack to a grinding halt.
The Rabbitohs came out of the blocks for the second half as though coach Wayne Bennett had given them a half time roasting. Ten minutes into the half Bailey Sironen took an inside ball from Adam Reynolds and hit a gap at full speed to dive over by the left upright. Reynolds kicked the extras and the gap was down to two points, the Souths looking in full control as the Panthers struggled to keep pace with them in the second half.
But on sixty the Panthers scored from nowhere thanks to a solo effort from Dylan Edwards who palmed away the tackler and jinked through the broken defence to score. Cleary kicked an awful conversion attempt, zero from three on the night, leaving the Panthers just 12-6 ahead, despite scoring three tries.
James Roberts was sin-binned on sixty-nine after tackling Crichton without the ball, the Rabbitohs down to twelve for the remainder of the game. Cleary finally kicked a goal from the resulting penalty to give his side a little breathing space.
Latrell Mitchell joined his team-mate Roberts in the sin-bin on seventy-six after a professional foul and within a minute Cleary made up for missing the earlier goals as he shook off the tacklers, threw the dummy and stepped off the right foot to run the arc and score the four-pointer. He added the conversion to his own try to seal the 20-6 lead.
In the dying seconds a flying Alex Johnston scored a consolation for Souths but it was too little and too late and despite Reynolds adding the touchline conversion for 12-20 it was all over.
This win takes the Panthers to the top of the table, ahead of the rest of the round seven matches, but Souths will be concerned that they are heading in the wrong direction and they will be bemused at the lack of form of Cleary with the boot. Far from a clinical second half performance from the Panthers but they had won the game in the opening forty.
Penrith Panthers: Edwards (T), To’o, Whare, Crichton (T), Naden (T), Luai, Cleary (T, 2G), Tamiou, Koroisau, Fisher-Harris, Kikau, Martin, Yeo. Subs: Burton, Tetevano, Leota, Burns.
South Sydney Rabbitohs: Mitchell (SB on 76), Gagai, Graham, Burns, Johnston (T), Walker, Reynolds (2G), Tatola, Cook, Burgess, Su’A, Lowe, Murray. Subs: Knight, Sironen (T), Roberts (SB on 69), Sele.
Referee: Gerard Sutton.
Ground: Netstrata Jubilee Stadium, Sydney.