Penrith coach Ivan Cleary admitted his battered players would need to find their best form to overcome Melbourne and qualify for back-to-back grand finals after edging out Parramatta 8-6 in a brutal semi-final clash in Mackay.
The Panthers have only scored one try in each of their two finals matches but a 40th minute Nathan Cleary penalty goal proved the difference in a gripping contest that left the shattered Eels preparing to return home after exiting in the second week of the play-offs for the fourth time since 2017.
Cleary’s men must now face the Storm next Saturday at Suncorp Stadium, after losing to South Sydney last weekend, for the right to face the winner of Friday night’s Rabbitohs-Sea Eagles clash in the premiership decider.
After having their 17-match winning streak ended by Melbourne in last year’s grand final and losing just three games in the 2021 regular season, Cleary admitted that Penrith felt the pressure to beat the Eels and he was proud of their defensive resolve in a scoreless second half.
Match: Panthers v Eels
Finals Week 2 -
Venue: BB Print Stadium, Mackay
“We have had to learn how to win different ways this year and our defence certainly held up tonight,” Cleary said.
“You only need to win by one point and I was very proud of the boys tonight. There was a fair bit of pressure on us and we ground out a win, which I think was not a bad thing.
“There is definitely pressure. We are all in a hub on the Sunshine Coast and it was quite sobering watching Newcastle pack up this week. We didn’t want to do that, so I am glad we are alive for another week.”
While the Storm had the benefit of the weekend off to freshen up for their tilt at a fifth grand final appearance in six years and back-to-back premierships, the Panthers had to survive a bruising encounter against Parramatta and Cleary admitted changes were likely next week.
Strike second-rower Viliame Kikau failed to finish the match after suffering an ankle injury, while interchange forward Mitch Kenny was forced from the field in controversial circumstances late in the match after a Penrith trainer stopped play with the Eels on the attack.
Kenny (ankle) appeared to have had his foot trodden on in a tackle and Cleary said he was in doubt for next weekend, while he hoped winger Brian To’o would overcome a 'minor' ankle injury to play after missing the win against the Eels, but couldn’t be sure.
“Everyone is a bit bruised and battered after a game like that but it is certainly a lot better when you win,” Cleary said. “I tell you one thing, we are battle hardened.
“[Kikau] just got a really big gash on his leg and he rolled his ankle. Hopefully it is just a lateral sprain.
"Mitch Kenny looks like he has done something pretty serious too. I wouldn’t say anything at the moment but there is a couple of guys who we will be trying to find some fresh bodies for next week.
Cleary with the deft kick for Capewell
“Melbourne have been the toughest team for 15 years since I have been coaching. They are consistently hard to beat. They have been an extremely big challenge.
“We will have to find our best, that’s for sure. That’s where you want to be. We are looking forward to the challenge but it is certainly going to be a tough one.”
The loss will be a devastating blow for Eels coach Brad Arthur and his men, who played their hearts out but didn't get the result.
However, Penrith had three tries disallowed and dominated the opening exchanges only for Parramatta to score first.
A swirling bomb by Eels playmaker Mitchell Moses bamboozled opposition fullback Dylan Edwards and the ball bounced up into the hands of Waqa Blake who raced over the try-line to score untouched in the 11th minute.
Penrith responded seven minutes later after halfback Cleary threaded a short grubber kick behind Parramatta five-eighth Dylan Brown for Kurt Capewell to swoop on the loose ball and score to level the scores.
Both tries came after a successful captain’s challenge but neither team had any luck when it came to Bunker calls, with Panthers pair Jarome Luai and Stephen Crichton having tries disallowed and Blake being denied his second for the Eels.
A Cleary penalty goal as the half-time siren sounded for a high shot by Parramatta utility Will Smith on Liam Martin gave Penrith an 8-6 lead at the interval but they again had a try ruled out nine minutes after the re-start as Luai was offside from a kick by his halves partner.
"It was a good old-fashioned semi-final tonight," Ivan Cleary said. "I thought we had the running of play in the first half and a bunch of chances but we just couldn’t finish them off.
"They got a try out of nothing really. The second half I thought we dominated the field position and again had a few chances but couldn’t break down Parra’s defence, which was outstanding."
Huge defensive play from Crichton