STARING down the barrel of his eighth loss of the year, Sydney Roosters coach Brad Fittler was desperate. He pulled one of the most questionable positional switches in the club’s recent history – he pitched 98-kilogram five-eighth Braith Anasta into fullback.
Fittler had to try something to arrest his side’s worrying slide down the table, but this gamble didn’t work. The Roosters were vulnerable in defence to a Penrith side brimming with confidence.
For the mountain men in Sydney’s west there is nothing sweeter than beating those boys from the east – but to do it with a nine-try drubbing made this victory one to remember for the Panthers. Certainly the voices questioning Fittler’s tenure as head of the Roosters are growing louder, and with performances like this he may need to start looking at job ads for 2010.
Inescapable fact: the Roosters have conceded 86 points in their past two games, and the club is at a loss as to how they can possibly turn their season around.
The Game Swung When… New fullback Anasta failed his first test – he spilled the first bomb kicked to him by the Panthers, and they continued to make life difficult for him all night.
Anasta’s inexperience under the high ball directly led to successive tries to opposition five-eighth Wade Graham, with equally green winger Sonny Tuigamala another target for the Panthers’ kickers.
As the Roosters fumbled all attempts to defuse kicks close to the line, Graham just stood back, picked up the pieces and scored two very easy tries in the first half to set up a handy lead. It was obvious the Anasta experiment had not worked – but Fittler stuck with it and Penrith were more than happy to send the ball Anasta’s way every time they were in position.
Who Was Hot: The Panthers’ State of Origin hopefuls fired at just the right time – centre Michael Jennings and five-eighth, lock, centre or, heck, back-rower Luke Lewis were outstanding. Lewis’ versatility shone through once again, but his dominant performance prompted coach Matt Elliott to call for his inclusion in the Blues’ no.6 jersey after he finished the game with a try assist and two line breaks. He set up the Panthers’ first try for Frank Pritchard, who was devastating out wide, and scored one of his own.
Jennings’ three tries were a highlight but the most pleasing aspect of his performance to selectors was his defence. The 21-year-old was disappointed with his efforts the week before, but shut down the Roosters with ease, only missing one tackle and making 11.
New halfback Luke Walsh (two try assists) has slotted straight in at Penrith and his combinations are improving, while forwards Pritchard and Petero Civoniceva (171 metres) were tireless.
Who Was Not: We’ve dealt with Anasta’s defensive deficiencies; unfortunately his attack was similarly lacking. He and halfback Mitchell Pearce failed to gain momentum – albeit not helped by a forward pack that was not giving them space to work in.
Anasta set up the Roosters’ only try for Ben Jones, but his combination with Pearce is nowhere near the dominance it enjoyed last season.
Hard-hitting prop Nate Myles was injured, only making 55 metres, and while he continued in the battle, losing the firepower of a player like Myles hurt the pack. Overall the Roosters could not even crack 1000 metres, making just 909 for the entire match. Sad.
Fittler’s other gamble was to send Jordan Tansey into hooker – but unfortunately the English import was ineffective. Highly paid stars Mark O’Meley (40 metres) and Willie Mason remain under pressure with underwhelming performances.
Had To Be Seen To Be Believed: Jennings is only 21, yet already he is drawing comparisons with some of the game’s all-time greats – in particular Steve Renouf. His speed is explosive, and whether he is 10 metres or 100 metres from the try line, there are few who can stop him. The local junior’s third try was one of the longest tries in the game’s history: Jennings fielded a Roosters kick in-goal and ran backwards, towards the dead ball line to evade defence, before turning and embarking on a 109-metre run.
O’Meley was the only player who could put a hand on him, and despite Jennings fearing he was about to get smashed, he merely turned on the speed and step, and powered away. No-one was ever going to stop him once he was in the clear.
Injuries: It looked as though Luke Lewis sustained an injury to his arm, coming from the field with it hanging limp by his side. However it emerged the injury actually came from a problem with nerve pain in his neck. Lewis insists he will be fine and says it was just a muscle spasm. Nate Myles’ hip injury has him in doubt for Origin.
Bad Boys… Willie Mason was charged by the match review committee with a knee lift while on the attack in the 44th minute. He’ll spend a week on the sidelines with an early guilty plea.
Refs Watch: With such a huge score line the referees were barely noticed apart from blowing the whistle for Panthers tries.
NRL.com Best & Fairest: 3 points – Michael Jennings (Panthers): Three tries exhibited the sheer speed of Jennings, who finished the game with a match-high 174 metres; 2 points – Luke Lewis (Panthers): Remarkably was off the field for 25 minutes and still managed to set up a try, made two line breaks, 10 tackle breaks, 113 metres and 26 tackles; 1 point – Petero Civoniceva (Panthers): A typical captain’s knock, playing for over an hour and making 171 metres.
Panthers 48 (M Jennings 3, W Graham 2, F Pritchard, S Elford, L Coote, Lewis tries; L Walsh 3, J Sammut 3 goals) def Roosters 6 (B Jones try, B Anasta goal) at CUA Stadium. Crowd: 8515.