Ivan Cleary impressed with gritty Penrith performance
Ivan Cleary hailed his team’s response to falling behind against an in-form Cronulla Sharks, before blasting their way to a victory that nearly guarantees them the minor premiership, with six games remaining in the regular season.
Penrith’s ninth successive win sends them 10 points clear at the top of the ladder, having played one game more than the second-placed North Queensland Cowboys.
In a top-of-the-table clash between two attacking teams, it was the Sharks who got the start of the run. They started confidently, unafraid to move the ball to the edges and look for offloads to move Penrith’s defensive line.
This early dominance was rewarded when Connor Tracey fought his way through several tackle attempts to score the game’s first points.
Shortly after, a Nicho Hynes bomb was dropped by Dylan Edwards; Cronulla extending their lead through Matt Moylan, who crossed the line the very next game.
An error from Siosifa Talakai gave Penrith excellent position on the pitch for the first time in the match. But Jarome Luai struck in the first tackle from the scrum which illustrated just how offside Penrith was.
“We definitely missed the mark early on,” Cleary said in his postgame press conference.
It was the first time the Panthers had trailed by double digits all season, with the Sharks taking a 10-0 lead.
Penrith have struggled to build cohesion in their attacking setups, after the majority of their starting 13 missed the previous two weeks due to home state obligation.
“Half the team has been out for a few weeks, so this is a time when you might be a bit uncovered,” Cleary conceded.
Both teams traded early kicks in their sets, as they tried to overthrow each other’s big attacking packs. But the battle for territory was ultimately won by the Panthers who fought back through Izack Tago at close range.
With their nerves calmed, Nathan Cleary continued to probe with his short kicking game. Late in the opening stanza, he forced another retirement – his third of the half.
However, his team ran out of time and the half-back opted to take both points when he kicked a penalty kick over the siren to come in at the 10-8 interval.
It had been more than two years since Penrith found himself trailing at half-time, despite being at home. But if the deficit shocked them, they didn’t let it show, as they took the lead on the scoreboard after barely a minute of play in the second half.
Edwards scored from the corner, after Taylan May raced down the touchline and somehow avoided putting a foot in touch.
“This trial was crucial,” Cleary said.
“It wasn’t the best of games for us – we lacked a bit of cohesion but that’s quite normal after six weeks where half the squad were probably lucky to have done a few sessions during those six weeks.”
In an error-strewn second half, both teams struggled to mount any kind of pressure with balls falling on the first tackle and constant penalties killing the pace of the competition.
In a deadly encounter, tempers threatened to boil over when Dale Finucane fired off the line and put a hit on Stephen Crichton. The center remained knocked down for a while, but the bunker ruled the contact legal.
“He’s going to see a plastic surgeon,” Cleary revealed after the game.
“His ear is awful…he’s definitely seen better days.”
Yet, as they always have, the Panthers dusted themselves off and sealed another win when Luai used footwork to get past two Cronulla defenders and send the visitors away empty-handed.