What a difference a week can make in football! Last week the Panthers were pummelled in the second half against the Broncos, outscored 40-0 in the final stanza to put their finals hopes in jeopardy. This week it was their turn to power away as the game wound down with a 22-0 second-half effort reinvigorating their finals dreams and smashing the Bunnies’ faint hopes in the process.
It has been almost five years since the Panthers’ fans and players tasted semi-final football but their drought might just come to an end as the big win ensured they’d end the round in the top eight, giving them every opportunity to stay there over the last fortnight of the regular season.
It sets up a mammoth western Sydney blockbuster next Friday night against the Eels which could easily turn out to be the most important game of the season for both sides.
But back to the South Sydney game and the destruction caused by Panthers’ back-rower Frank Pritchard: The Kiwi representative was at his devastating best, terrorising the Rabbitohs’ defence constantly. The Bunnies’ defensive grit may not have been at its best but Pritchard could only play what was in front of him… at times that wasn’t much!
Perhaps the most telling stat of the game was metres gained… the Panthers managed to make 1544 metres while the Bunnies couldn’t crack the grand with just 981 metres.
Souths traded blows with the Panthers early but the visitors failed to score a point in the final 54 minutes of the match, completely extinguishing the embers of their finals fire.
The Game Swung When… The Rabbitohs decided not to bring semi-final style intensity to their last throw of the dice. Sure they were under-strength and sure they were playing in Penrith – but the fans probably expected, and deserved, a little more from a side that still had faint hopes of finals football.
They were in the contest for a period of time but the game never really looked like one of great importance (the Panthers can also share some of this blame) – which would have been extremely disappointing for both coaches.
In terms of the turning point it was no doubt when Paul Aiton pushed his way over from dummy-half in the 49th minute. The Rabbitohs had somewhat matched it with the home side in the first half to trail by just 18-10 at the break but when they allowed a soft dummy-half try to Aiton with half hour left it was enough to snuff out any minor enthusiasm they had.
Additional tries to Michael Gordon, Brad Tighe and Michael Jennings gave the home side a nice boost in their differential.
Who Was Hot… Pritchard and his back-row partner Trent Waterhouse were the game’s best.
‘Cranky Frankie’ finished with 161 metres and two try assists plus four tackle breaks, four offloads and a line break.
Waterhouse tallied 137 metres and 28 tackles and also had four tackle breaks, four offloads and a line break – plus he had a heavy hand in Michael Gordon’s four-pointer.
Penrith prop Frank Puletua was also a workhorse on his way to 212 metres. In fact, the Panthers’ entire squad made some great metres, with eight of the 17 grinding out 100 or more to their name.
Who Was Not… The Rabbitohs’ defence was substandard. Chris Sandow continued to miss tackles; this week it was nine.
Sandow’s halves partner John Sutton missed five, some which were elementary and led to tries. Issac Luke also missed five but his first half was reasonably solid and he looked dangerous at times.
Had To Be Seen To Be Believed… The final two Penrith tries were spectacular, with the Panthers’ centres cracking open the Bunnies from far out.
First it was Brad Tighe who sliced through on the right side thanks to a Pritchard pass and ran 35 metres to grab a four-pointer.
Then it was Michael Jennings’ turn to get in on the act over on the left. Jennings was given early ball on halfway and proceeded to step off his left foot and accelerate through a gap with Usain Bolt-like speed. His angled run back through the middle ended with Rabbitohs defenders diving outstretched and still not getting close to the NSW star.
Offloads from Pritchard (Wade Graham try) and Waterhouse (Michael Gordon try) which led to points were also pretty special.
Injuries… Luke Lewis was concussed in the opening seconds of the second half. It’s been an injury-filled year for Lewis although he did return to the field late in the match and should be right for next week.
Bad Boys… South Sydney forward David Fa’alogo produced a high tackle on Panthers fullback Jarrod Sammut in the 71st minute but escaped further action.
Refs Watch… Gavin Badger and Bernard Sutton allowed this game to flow nicely. While the intensity of a finals match was missing, despite the importance of the game, the officials allowed the two teams to decide the result… what else can we ask for?
NRL.com Best & Fairest: 3 points – Frank Pritchard (Panthers): Came up with the big try assists when needed and constantly gave the Rabbitohs’ defenders massive problems. Shaping up to be a real wildcard should the Panthers make the finals; 2 points – Trent Waterhouse (Panthers): Added stinging defence to another great attacking performance. The big unit promoted great second-phase play and ran both on the edges and up the guts; 1 point – Frank Puletua (Panthers): Produced a grinding props game with 23 hit-ups and over 200 metres. Might be no-frills but he is getting the job done.
Panthers 40 (J Tia Kilifi 2, W Graham, P Aiton, M Gordon, B Tighe, M Jennings tries; M Gordon 6 goals) def Rabbitohs 10 (J Vaivai, I Luke tries; C Sandow goal) at CUA Stadium. Crowd: 14,214.