Nathan Cleary tormented an ill-disciplined Rabbitohs with a shower of towering torpedoes to give the Panthers a mental edge over their likely first-up semi-final opponents
Cleary’s kicking game and cool head were the difference in Penrith’s 25-12 win with Isaah Yeo leading a physical return of serve after the Rabbitohs dominated early.
The race to the 2021 NRL Telstra Finals Series is on and every game matters. Watch Live & Ad-Break Free on Kayo. New to Kayo? Try 14-days free >
The blockbuster clash proved beyond doubt that the Rabbitohs are a vastly improved side from the one the Panthers towelled up 56-12 in round 11, but if Souths are to be a finals force they must fix up their discipline. The penalty count was 11-2 in Penrith’s favour.
“We are the number one ranked team this year for least penalties against us so it is not something we do, but we did tonight,” Rabbitohs coach Wayne Bennett said.
“We had a bad night with it and have to live with it.
“There were lots of good things we did. It was a lot better than Dubbo, so we have come that far. There’s just a couple of things for us to fix up.”
Bennett said before the game that he didn’t have anything up his sleeve for the blockbuster clash. He didn’t need to, because the trump cards were already in his hand.
The four aces spine of Latrell Mitchell, Cody Walker, Adam Reynolds and Damien Cook all turned it on early to give the Rabbitohs a 12-0 lead.
Cook was dynamite through the middle, Walker set up Dane Gagai for the opening try, Mitchell got on the end of a corking Keaon Koloamatangi flick and Reynolds’ kicking game was imperious.
Souths then opened the door for Penrith with poor discipline and Paul Momirovski conjured up two stunning in-field kicks for tries to Cleary and Stephen Crichton and reduce the margin to two points at the break.
Cleary, who has not lost a game of football this year, turned the screws after half-time with his kicking game – in general play and with two penalty goals – and when Mansour dropped a towering Cleary bomb the Panthers nailed their chance with Naden going over. Cleary iced it with a cool field goal. Mitchell and Mansour will be having nightmares about Cleary’s high kicks, which they let bounce too often. When the game was there to be won it was Cleary and not Walker who stepped up.
“That is what (Nathan) does and why he is so important to the team,” Panthers coach Ivan Cleary said.
“We got a lot of results out of his kicks in that second half particularly. You always try and test the opposition back three and once (Mansour) looked a bit shaky we kept going there.”