The Panthers progressed to their first NRL Grand Final since 2003 with a gutsy 20-16 Preliminary Final victory over South Sydney Rabbitohs at ANZ Stadium on Saturday.
It was an incredibly tense affair which went right down to wire, but the Panthers defended bravely against a lively Souths side in the closing stages to secure their ticket to next week’s NRL Grand Final against the Melbourne Storm.
A 66th-minute try to Dylan Edwards, assisted by Isaah Yeo, proved the difference in the end. The Rabbitohs pulled one back in the 72nd minute to set up a grandstand finish, but the Panthers would not be denied. Nathan Cleary was immense with his marvellous kicking game, particularly in the closing stages when the game was on the line.
The Rabbitohs started strongly, scoring the opening try inside five minutes, but the Panthers’ response was even better. First-half tries to Brian To’o and Tyrone May saw them take a halftime lead, and from there they would not be chased down.
In progressing to the Grand Final, the Panthers also clinched their 17th consecutive victory and equalled the best-ever winning streak of the NRL era.
Making the win all the more impressive was the absence of strike forward Viliame Kikau. He will return from suspension to be available for next week’s Grand Final.
Unfortunately, the Panthers will be sweating on a verdict from the match review committee after James Fisher-Harris was placed on report for a high shot.
But it would not put a damper on the occasion as the Panthers celebrated reaching their first Grand Final in 17 years.
The Rabbitohs got off to a great start, scoring inside five minutes before the Panthers had any proper possession. A one-on-one strip by Souths on the first tackle left Penrith backpedalling, and Adam Reynolds kicked out wide to an unmarked Alex Johnston.
Reynolds converted to give Souths a 6-0 lead, but it would not last long, as the Panthers returned serve with a try at the end of their first full set.
A Nathan Cleary bomb was spilled by Souths under the pressure of Tyrone May, and the ball sat up for Brian To’o. He still had plenty of work to do, but To’o managed to weave his way through three defenders to the try line.
Cleary’s conversion made it 6-6 after just eight minutes.
To'o beats three to score the Panthers first try
The Panthers had three opportunities to take the lead not long after, but blew them all.
First, Jarome Luai broke into space with players in support, but he instead chose to put in a kick. Later, an Isaah Yeo line break left Souths on the ropes, but the next play ended with an error. And then, Kurt Capewell appeared to finish off a great long-range try, only for the final pass to be called forward.
All of this occurred within the opening 20 minutes, as well as an unsuccessful captain’s challenge by either side.
James Fisher-Harris was placed on report in the 22nd minute for an alleged high tackle, although the decision seemed a bit harsh. This, as well as the wasted opportunities, could have left the Panthers frustrated, but it instead lit a fire in their belly.
Half-breaks by Brian To’o and Nathan Cleary put the Panthers on the attack, and this time they were able to capitalise and take the lead. Cleary directed a delicate chip to the in-goal, and Tyrone May won the contest to plant it down under the black dot for the Panthers’ second try.
Cleary added the extras, and the Panthers had a 12-6 lead after 28 minutes.
Cleary and May combine
Souths looked dangerous when they shifted the ball wide late in the first half before Josh Mansour produced a piece of individual brilliance, singlehandedly carrying Jaxson Paulo into touch.
The Panthers threatened to score a third just before halftime when Cleary put a clever kick through with Stephen Crichton chasing. Crichton was escorted off the ball by Jed Cartwright, who was awfully lucky to not be sin binned.
Nathan Cleary settled for the penalty goal, giving the Panthers an eight-point lead at the break.
HALF-TIME: PANTHERS 14 – RABBITOHS 6
The Panthers were given a massive scare early in the second half when Souths attacked the line, but a phenomenal try-saving tackle by Jarome Luai highlighted a great collective defensive effort.
Unfortunately, a penalty marched South back upfield and this time they could not be contained. A Cameron Murray line break left the Panthers backpedalling, and Souths moved it down the short side. Dane Gagai appeared to bobble the ball over the line, but the try was awarded by the Bunker.
Reynolds then converted, narrowing the margin to two points with 50 minutes played.
Stephen Crichton came agonisingly close to re-extending the Panthers lead on two occasions, but luck was not on his side as he just could not get the ball to the try line.
The Panthers then suffered an almighty blow heading into the final twenty minutes, as Api Koroisau had to leave the field with an injury.
Souths were coming home strong, dominating field position and forcing some brave defensive efforts by the Panthers. But the Panthers kept their cool, and then scored a big try against the run of play.
Isaah Yeo showed incredible skill, with a sidestep and a fend to break into open space 30 metres from the try line. He found Dylan Edwards flying through in support, and the fullback streaked away for an enormous try.
Cleary’s conversion made it an eight-point game with twelve minutes left, but Souths were not done with yet.
The Rabbitohs retrieved possession from the kick-off and went straight back on the attack. Jarome Luai and Kurt Capewell combined for a great try-saving tackle on Cody Walker, but it would only delay Souths.
The Rabbitohs set up a grandstand finish, when Corey Allan toed forward a wobbly pass by Walker and pounced on the ball to score. Reynolds failed to convert from the sideline, and the score was 20-16 with seven minutes to play.
Souths looked certain to go on the attack again in the dying stages when Adam Reynolds appeared to have kicked a 40/20, but the halfback was denied as his foot was on the 40-metre line.
The Panthers showed incredible defensive resolve in the closing stages to keep Souths at bay, and a perfect downtown kick by Nathan Cleary in the final seconds meant the Rabbitohs had to go the distance after the full-time siren.
The Panthers scrambled in defence, and eventually shut down the play.
And with that, the Panthers were on their way to the 2020 NRL Grand Final.
FULL-TIME: PANTHERS 20 – RABBITOHS 16