The mighty Sydney Roosters taking on the upstart, young guns in the Penrith Panthers. It is a delectable proposition for all fans of this great game we call Rugby League.
Regularly, we might complain about the menagerie of stars we have missing.
Luke Keary, long absent due to his ACL, Nathan Cleary, anxiously prowling the sideline, not unlike his team’s namesake. Add in Ikuvalu, the Morris twins, and Lindsay Collins for the Roosters.
For the men from the foot of the mountain, they would prepare for battle without the inspirational James Fisher-Harris, the high-flying Brian To’o, and their new recruit in the mercurial Tevita Pangai Junior.
Nonetheless, some clubs seem to have the ability to effortlessly fill enormous shoes with the feet of little-known extras.
The Storm have mastered the art, the Roosters a close second. One club that might enter that list is the Penrith Panthers.
Naysayers of Ivan Cleary have become few in recent seasons and the evolution of the Panthers in that time seems to have justified the faithful.
So, with a laundry list of missing men, a season in chaos, a relocation to Brisbane, an apocalyptic landscape just beyond the tip of Suncorp Stadium’s grandstand, two of the great modern Rugby League teams were to do battle.
The prize? A coveted top four position that is open to as many as six teams. Quite the evening of footy is predicted.
As the match begins, we get a close-up look at the new breed. Jarome Luai breathes heavy, meditatively to settle himself before the game.
Sam Walker is determined and confident (perhaps because of the compatriots around him), barking orders and rev-ups to the senior members of the squad.
Matt Burton and Drew Hutchison look slightly nervous.
This young generation will be dominating in five years and it is somewhat comforting to think about five years now.
And it is one of these junior players that opens up the game. It is tight and frenetic to being with.
Admittedly, the Roosters appeared to have the upper hand, spending time in the Panthers’ half of the field, the arm-wrestle teetering their way.
An innocuous knock-on from Sam Verrills would give Penrith back the ball just in front of their try-line.
One tackle from the scrum, Panthers spread and Kikau manages to throw a huge ball as he is being tackled but it’s Matt Burton on the sideline.
He has no room and two Roosters loom fast upon him. In a flash, he has bounced off his left foot and streaked past a nonplussed James Tedesco.
Unneeding of the support racing alongside, Burton opens the scoring and converts his try.
There is a sense of possible regret in the air. Bulldogs fans become more enthused with their signing every week.
Sydney Roosters would take that personally, clearly. They wouldn’t like to have conceded first.
Particularly with two of their playmakers failing to tackle the rampaging Burton. So it went, playing more upbeat and more committed.
Repeat sets would follow, Joey Manu again leading the way. The man may officially be listed as a centre but he plays anywhere and everywhere.
And if he’s only to be offered centre money, one would imagine we will be unlikely to see him in the red, blue, and white for long.
Eventually, the creaking and protesting Panthers defence would crack when Victor Radley, running at a suicidal pace, was delivered a flat ball across the face of the tryline from the dummy-half.
In shock, the Panthers made almost no attempt to stop the inevitable. Not quite the defensive stoush you would hope for from a team hoping to lift the trophy at the pointy end.
Amusing aside. Panthers would be handed an easy penalty goal attempt after the Roosters captain’s challenge of a knock-on.
Challenge successful, penalty against Roosters. Burton makes it 8-6. I might have tried to go for the six points but I am a gambling man.
The Roosters are talented and dangerous. When they’re behind against these young upstarts, they play with utter ruthlessness.
Panthers are willing to go toe-to-toe. It explodes with eight minutes left in the half a scuffle breaks out after a particularly heavy tackle.
It’s always enjoyable to see the tensions flare. Perhaps they do care as much as us, the fanatics. That makes it real. It is real TV, in opposition (or complement) to reality TV.
The Panthers, maybe feeling sore from the aggression, hit back with as much as their own.
Six agains follow as they relentlessly storm the keep.
Jared Waerea-Hargreaves flop is one six again too many and a second or two too long. He’s gone for 10 minutes to think about his behaviour.
It is the very next set that a widespread to the returning Paul Momirovski ended with the very same slamming the ball on the tryline, Panthers defenders hanging off him helplessly.
After coming from the Tigers, Momirovski might have thought he would be seeing more game time this year. Surely frustrated, that try felt weighed by a year of watching a potential Premiership from the sideline.
He is saying, “here I am”. It’s all action, all narrative, all the time when you’re watching the National Rugby League!
The Roosters are unwilling to go away. It seems impossible they will not also score. Tedesco is hungry and everywhere in both attack and defense.
Verrills is trying to prove his worth, Walker is composed. There is only one problem for the Eastern Suburbs team. And that problem’s name is Matt Burton.
It looks like he is playing against second-graders, his step is unbelievable and it is getting them every single time.
First, he makes a break from halfway that is only stopped 10 metres out thanks to a remarkable Tedesco try-saver.
A minute later though and Burton is back out on the left and bouncing and dummying once more. This time, he cannot be stopped.
Bulldogs fans have never cheered harder for the Panthers. Suddenly, the game is 20-6 and the Roosters do not know where to go. It is not a feeling they are used to.
Despite the dominance on the scoreboard, it doesn’t feel like the Panthers are in control. There are too many passes bouncing on the turf, too many knock-ons, too many poor run options that go nowhere – many of these examples propagated by one Jarome Luai.
They look rudderless somehow. The Panthers are not clinically managing the match. Matt Burton is just having a night out.
The Roosters are the team that look most likely to capitalise if they could just get the rub of the green.
With 21 minutes to go, it is their two best players that combine. After earning repeat sets, Tedesco, with his pace, as always, just creates a 3-on-2 by sheer will to win.
He is the Captain and he appears to be taking that seriously.
And it’s an easy-looking, but perfectly weighted pass that allows Joey Manu to dive over with nary a moment nor inch to spare. 20-10 with 20 to go.
It feels like anything could happen.
Five minutes of tussle later and Crichton passes to Tupou on the wing, with no room except right in front, which was impeded by one Charlie Staines, who had been having a bad night.
His tackle was limp and ineffective and Tupou simply strolled over the top of him.
There’s still some growing left to do for young Staines. The scoreline was reduced to six with 12 minutes left.
Disappointingly, when they needed it the most, the Roosters simply did not have the direction they needed to mount the total comeback.
Joey and Teddy tried hard but it wasn’t enough to prevent a fourth-straight loss to the Panthers.
Despite what was a good game, I remain unconvinced of both the Panthers and the Roosters.
Luai had occasional positive touches but it seems unthinkable that he can retain his position over Burton. A much better team and balanced halves partnership beckons.
The Roosters seem to have simply lost too many key men to affect an effective premiership campaign.
We’re going to have to watch bloody Storm win the big dance again, aren’t we?
Penrith Panthers 20 (Burton 2, Momirovski) def Sydney Rooster 14 (Radley, Manu, Tupou)
NRL News Player of the Match
3 Points – Matt Burton (PEN)
2 Points – Viliame Kikau (PEN)
1 Point – James Tedesco (SYD)