Penrith have held off a late charge from South Sydney to claim their fifth straight victory over their opponents with a 16-10 result at BlueBet Stadium.
Entering into the contest, the reigning premiers were staring down the barrel of a third successive defeat and potentially their worst start to a season since 2016 but produced a display full of power and aggression to get off the mark.
Nathan Cleary terrrorises South Sydney with commanding display
Speaking pre-match, coach Ivan Cleary had a glint in his eye when he called for his side to play with more freedom as they entered into the next phase of their evolution.
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From the very first minute, it was clear his troops had bought into his messaging throughout the week with their energy helping them to rip holes in the Bunnies defence through the middle.
Isaah Yeo thought he’d claimed the first points of the evening when he touched down after two minutes but a knock-on from Liam Martin from the kick in the build-up cancelled it out.
But Nathan Cleary’s bombs continued to terrorise Souths backline with Penrith crossing moments later through Stephen Crichton in the corner for his seventh try in his past eight games against Souths.
The aerial assault then occurred for the third set in a row with the Panthers travelling 99 metres after points, as their play-the-ball speed and direct running proved almost impossible for the defence to deal with.
Cleary made it his aim to bypass Latrell Mitchell at fullback, instead lobbing them into the corner or sending wobbling balls up to test Izaac Thompson and Alex Johnston on the wings.
Although the halfback was soon isolated on his own try line in defence but came up with a vital one-on-one stop on a rampaging Tom Burgess.
The Panthers survived their first defensive examination of the night but Martin’s second error inside the first 20 minutes invited the Bunnies back onto them.
Yet it was the home side who came closest to scoring the next points when Yeo’s short ball put Luke Garner over, but he was unable to keep hold of the ball under the duress of a strong Mitchell tackle.
Penrith finally got on the scoreboard again with seconds left on the clock when Izack Tago crossed following a break from Jarome Luai. Although there was plenty of controversy in the build-up with Garner appearing to knock-on.
The try was given a tick of approval by the Bunker but as Crichton lined up the conversion, attention quickly turned to Cleary who limped down the tunnel after injuring his ankle in a tackle only moments earlier.
He had been instrumental in the first stanza with his kicking game and ability to engage the line and tie up defenders causing plenty of issues for Souths.
The co-captain returned to the fold much to the relief of the Penrith contingent and was on hand to kick a penalty to stretch Penrith’s advantage to 12-0 after the break.
Latrell Mitchell sparks to life late but can’t help Bunnies to the win
Despite initially being perfect with completions in the early stages of the contest, the Bunnies inability to keep hold of possession or finish off their sets with an adequate kick came back to haunt them with Brian To’o going over in the corner following a turnover on the halfway line.
“I felt like if we could have scored first in the second half, we probably could have gone on with it but giving away an early try in the second half just made it too hard,” Jason Demetriou said post-match.
“To use a boxing analogy, we tried to fight off the ropes. I don’t think we stepped into the fight enough, so we’ve got to be better.
“Our motivation was good. It’s all well and good having that motivation when you come here, but when you step in – there was moments where we did. But we were already on the backfoot before we started to step in.”
However, despite being beaten to the punch time and time again, the Bunnies did well to remain in the contest.
Alex Johnston registered his customary four-pointer to bring the Rabbitohs back within 12 points and suddenly Mitchell sparked into life.
He charged into the heart of the Penrith defence threatening to skittle them, before producing an incredible flick pass down the touchline a play or two later for Isiah Tass to score.
The fullback then nailed the sideline conversion to get his side to within six points with a minute or so left on the clock.
Yet it proved to be too little too late, as Penrith held on to record their first win of the season and put any doubts about their quest for a three-peat to bed by knocking over a fellow premiership heavyweight.
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