The Penrith Panthers are a well-oiled machine and they don’t need their biggest stars to win comfortably.
The Penrith Panthers have shrugged off the absence of six Origin stars to defeat the Canterbury Bulldogs 30-18 and send an ominous warning to the competition that even without their biggest names, the reigning champs will get the job done.
Nathan Cleary, Jarome Luai, Isaah Yeo, Stephen Crichton, Liam Martin and Brian To’o all watched on from the sidelines as Sean O’Sullivan and debutant Kurt Falls helped the Panthers do what they couldn’t do in their premiership season: compete in the Origin period.
The minor premiership now looks within reach for Penrith and the season is only halfway done; the Panthers are two games clear at the top and they’ve gotten through likely their toughest game of the year in terms of personnel changes.
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It wasn’t all doom and gloom for the Bulldogs, who are continuing to find their rhythm in attack under interim coach Mick Potter.
Ex-Panther Matt Burton gave the local crowd a serious fright in the second half and his combination with Josh Addo-Carr wouldn’t have gone unnoticed by Brad Fittler – the man who snubbed Addo-Carr from the NSW Origin team.
The Bulldogs had more possession in the first half and completed at 90 per cent but still found themselves three tries behind on the scoreboard; just like their superstar teammates have been all year, the second-string Panthers were better at making the most of their chances.
“Apart from our overplaying, I’m quite happy with our attack but we’re just giving the other team too many opportunities,” Potter said post-match.
“We have to build our resilience in our ‘D’ early on. Right at the moment, it’s not acceptable and we need to start better.”
Kurt Falls showed off a radar-like kicking game and alongside the criminally underrated Sean O’Sullivan, booted the Panthers into the field position they needed to open up a handy first-half buffer.
Dylan Edwards and James Fisher-Harris kept the captaincy warm for Yeo and Cleary and predictably, the pair were among the hardest working on and off the ball.
“To captain the Panthers is something special and dear to my heart,” Edwards said.
The star power may have been reduced but there was no shortage of magical moments; recently re-signed winger Taylan May scored one of the most acrobatic tries of his career to date and drew level with Ryan Papenhuyzen at the top of the try-scoring leaderboard.
“I was happy with the week and happy with the game,” Panthers coach Ivan Cleary said post-match.
“The start of the second half, we probably couldn’t build pressure with our last plays, which we’re normally really good at.
“But all in all I was very happy.”
The depleted Panthers’ win posed a question almost too terrifying for the rest of the NRL to even consider: are the mountain men even better equipped for a premiership tilt this year than they were in 2021?
Penrith Falls for Kurt
Kurt Falls will remember June 3, 2022 for the rest of his life.
Falls partnered Nathan Cleary in the halves during high school but while Cleary has gone on to rugby league superstardom, his old schoolmate has toiled away in the lower grades and worked as a carpenter to pay the bills.
So when Ivan Cleary finally handed him his first grade debut at the ripe old age of 25, Falls was understandably keen to make the most of his chance.
He put up a pinpoint kick to the sideline with his first involvement and minutes later, chipped for his regular NSW Cup teammate Chris Smith, who crashed over to score Penrith’s first.
When he converted the Panthers’ second try from the southern touchline, Falls had well and truly won the local crowd over.
“He was busy, he got out there and had a run straight away, had a kick, got a try assist and kicked a goal all in the space of five minutes,” Cleary said.
“He did a good job defensively as well. He should be happy with himself.”
Falls is no chance to leapfrog Luai or Cleary into the halves and given he’s off contract next year, there’s more than one NRL rival who would do well to make a move.
Tough to be Duff
Matt Dufty’s form has been turbulent since he joined the Bulldogs this season and things came to a head before kick-off when interim coach Mick Potter dropped him from the 17.
“Obviously he wasn’t happy about it but he was amongst the team tonight, he was on stand by and he was upbeat,” Potter said.
“He’s a professional. He’s a possibility of bouncing back and being back in the frame.”
Potter named one-time Origin representative Corey Allan at fullback but once play began, Jake Averillo assumed the role.
Dufty is out of contract at the end of the season and could well test the open market, particularly now that the man who lured him to the Bulldogs, Trent Barrett, is no longer the coach.
The pint-sized fullback has already been linked with a move to the Warrington Wolves in the English Super League.
Unless he can impress Wayne Bennett, who has yet to sign an out-and-out fullback at the Dolphins, Dufty’s chances of landing a starting gig at a rival NRL club next year appear remote.