Penrith produced the comeback of the season to date in racing back from 24-4 down with half an hour to play to beat Manly 31-24 with 27 unanswered points.
Cartwright plays his natural game
Back-rower turned five-eighth Bryce Cartwright was quiet in the first half as his team, completely starved of possession, slumped to a big deficit while holding just 30 per cent of the ball. But with an even share, the Blues hopeful exploded into life. He created two tries: one on the left edge with a deft grubber behind the line for Josh Mansour to score and one down the right side with a late offload to Waqa Blake setting up Dallin Watene-Zelezniak. He finished with an absurd seven offloads as well, to go with his 31 tackles and 99 running metres.
"He plays right edge but we encourage him to move around. He played five-eighth for a couple games there earlier in the year, we just had him in 12 at times," Penrith coach Anthony Griffin said after the game.
"He's just one of those instinctive players, he's got a good perception of space and the pace of the game and knows when to inject himself and when not."
Cartwright added: "I just let 'Nath' (halfback Nathan Cleary) and 'Wally' (hooker Peter Wallace) sort of control the game and I just sort of pop up wherever there's space and just let them do all the kicking and control the game and I pop up anywhere."
Walker turns it on
Maligned NSW utility Dylan Walker shrugged off the storm around his selection for – and subsequent lack of minutes in – Origin I to show the type of form Blues coach Laurie Daley would have had in mind when picking the 21-year-old in the first place.
Walker – like Manly – exploded out of the blocks. He showed wonderful footwork on the right edge to make the usually-reliable Isaah Yeo look second rate before pushing past Blues teammate Matt Moylan to make it 6-0 before Penrith touched the ball.
He produced a sublime piece of work to retrieve a poor pass and kick ahead then loom up in support to bag his second (and his side's third). He was heavily involved in attack, passing and kicking well in the opening 40, and slotted four goals from as many attempts – two from right on the sideline – after being handed the kicking duties with every other regular candidate unavailable through injury.
Walker busted a stunning, match-high 11 tackles for good measure and while his second half saw a significant step down in his impact, he was not alone.
"I thought he was terrific. He showed in the first half what I've seen and known all along," Manly coach Trent Barrett said after the game.
"He's been bashed from pillar to post by everyone saying he's not this or he's not that. I think we saw some glimpses tonight of what he can do when things are going well. In the first half things were going well for us and he got put in positions where he can do those things that he does."
Young sharpshooter was never going to kick for Penrith
Young halfback Nathan Cleary may have been racking up hundreds of points in the NYC this year but Griffin said he never contemplated burdening the 18-year-old second-gamer with even more responsibility this early in his career.
Even after skipper Matt Moylan shanked his first two attempts Cleary wasn't called up; instead reliable hooker Peter Wallace wound back the clock and nailed three important goals as his side raced into the lead from a long way behind.
"I thought he had enough on his plate at the moment," Grffin said.
"I was happy with Matt or Peter, they both practised this week – though Matt probably needs a bit more practice!"
Another lapse costs Manly dearly
A clearly frustrated Barrett said his team will continue to have to deal with frustrating losses until they can learn to stay in the game for the full 80 minutes.
At 24-4 up, they should have been able to hang on regardless of how well their opposition played but, as was the case with a quick three-try burst either side of half-time last week in a 30-18 loss to Canberra and a Round 5 loss at home where they were better than the Rabbitohs for roughly 60 minutes after a costly slow start, it was a short period of scoring against them that cost them two vital competition points.
"It's probably been pretty prominent in all our games, we've been the better side for an hour and have a 15, 20 minute period where we capitulate and can't handle any adversity and that's what happened again," Barrett said.
"To be a first grader and to win consistently at this level you have to be able to play for 80 minutes and we can't at the moment. And until we do we're going to be on the end of that again."
The three sets that won it for Penrith
Midway through the second half, with their comeback underway but with a huge hill to climb at 24-14 down, the visitors had to absorb a gruelling three sets of defence at their line. The moment fullback Moylan finally broke the run of time without the ball when he cleaned up a grubber just inside the field of play with his side not having suffered further damage on the scoreboard was the turning point, Penrith players said after the game.
Having scored twice to bring it back from 24-4, Penrith lost the ball coming out of territory when Moylan couldn't reel in a Trent Merrin offload in the midfield in the 57th minute. A terrific run from Tom Trbojevic was only stopped inches short of the line by some desperate defence. A drop out, a full set at the line, another drop out and a third full set at the line followed.
When Moylan finally cleaned up an attacking grubber in the 62nd minute Penrith should have been out on their feet but the confidence they got out of that defensive stretch set them up to make a late charge to victory.
They forced a drop out of their own in the 66th minute after some good running sets and marched over for three tries in seven minutes from there on.
"The big turning point was where we defended three sets on our line in the second half and 'Moysa' brought the ball back from that little grubber. I think that was a big turning point there and we just got on a role from there. The boys played some great footy and we won off the back of that," Cartwright said.
Added Cleary: "I think [the turning point] was actually after we defended those three sets on our line and we ended up scoring not long after that and we just got the momentum and we kept going forward."