Almanac Rugby League – Seeing Cleary

Rugby league in Penrith faces its share of battles, that’s no secret. But on a Saturday night at Centrebet Stadium, it certainly feels like rugby league heartland.

I’m visiting my mate Steve, who lives in the mountains and has the severe misfortune of being born a staunch Parramatta fan. He usually holds a torch for the Panthers, through sheer community osmosis, but tonight he’s cheering the Warriors. Somehow I don’t think he’s forgiven Penrith for their golden point win that ruined Hindy’s 300th. Which, of course, is fair enough, it has only been a month.

A quick check of the stats reveals the Panthers haven’t won since then, while the Warriors have won five of their last six. Signs point to another Warriors win. I lay some cash on the Warriors giving up 6½. It feels right.

The crowd spills into Centrebet, and I wondering just how many of them are there courtesy of a remorseful Michael Jennings. The atmosphere is phenomenal. It’s a farewell to Penrith for Petero Civoniceva, Trent Waterhouse, Matt Bell, and to a lesser extent Adrian Purtell, so there’s plenty of sentiment among the Panther faithful. Then there’s Ivan Cleary. Moving from the Warriors to coach the local side next year, ought to make tonight’s clash bizarre for him at best.

But the Panthers start positively, and from the outset demonstrate they are keen to play more expansive football. We’re ten minutes in and the Panthers push it. This is side to side, end to end, exciting stuff, into the in goal Until outgoing son, Trent Waterhouse puts down the final pass and lets them down. Shame.

Both sides are clumsy, and next to me Steve wonders what is going through Ivan Cleary’s mind in a coach’s box he’ll soon find so unfamiliar.

The thought is intriguing, especially when Waterhouse botches a second try thanks to a last minute desperate lunge from Warriors fullback Kevin Locke, who hands off to halfback Shaun Johnson from the scrum to run eighty metres to score up the other end. Finally we have a score – it’s been twenty-five minutes.

Talk turns to Michael Jennings’ shortcomings as a fullback. He looks about as comfortable back there as cheap toilet paper. He’s more suited as a receiver than a fullback Steve suggests. As if on cue the revitalised Warriors lift Jennings up and rattle him on his kick return, spilling the ball, allowing Ben Matulino to stroll in untouched. From nowhere Penrith are suddenly trailing 10-0. The crowd are stunned. The sentiment of the farewell evening around the ground is dissipating.

Meanwhile the other fullback, Kevin Locke, is having a game to remember. Saving tries, assisting tries, and in the shadows of half time, he defuses another ambitious expansive push from the Panthers, and races sixty metres himself through broken play to score another try against the run. Somehow we’ve hit the sheds with the home side down 16-0. What will the Panthers drum up?

They begin the second half in much the same manner: nothing ventured, nothing gained. Four minutes in Simmons sends Jennings down the left touchline. Panther fans are on their feet. But Kevin Locke chases. Fast. Pulling off one of the great try-saving tackles, Locke can do no wrong tonight. Steve is amused at the irony, chuckling something about Scott Sattler.

Undeterred, the Panthers finally put one in the corner. That had been coming for a while. The crowd comes to life. Even more so, ten minutes late when Brad Tighe puts on some fancy footwork and runs the length of the field to score. Fortunately for us James Maloney’s earlier penalty goal now means the Warriors still lead by more than a converted try. More importantly they are still covering the 6½.

But we can sense this match has moved into a new level of criticality. The Panthers smell blood, and the desperation is evident, just neither side seems to hang onto the ball. It’s tense, and the stakes have been raised at Centrebet (pun intended). Frustrations are showing with only seventeen minutes are left. A Panthers penalty has them kick for goal to bring them within a converted try, but feels defeatist. Steve needlessly reminds me again the margin is now just six.  Thanks.

But what looks headed for a grandstand finish, is defused when James Maloney ruins all the theatre, booting the game breaking 40/20, then on the next set of six, calmly slots a penalty goal to put the Warriors back to eight points in front.

By the time Vatuvei scores with five minutes to go, it’s a mere formality. There’s a reason that the Warriors are now in the top four with the all important final beckoning at Mt Smart if they stick to the script.

And the Panthers? Their season was summed up tonight. They played an exciting brand of football but missed too many opportunities. 2012 can’t arrive soon enough. A new era beckons. It may be goodbye to Civoniceva, Waterhouse, Bell and Purtell, but there is hope. Steve makes a good point as we leave the ground. The Penrith faithful shouldn’t lose heart. There’s next year, and above all, they can see Cleary now.

NEW ZEALAND WARRIORS 26 (Tries: Shaun Johnson, Ben Matulino, Kevin Locke, Manu Vatuvei. Goals James Maloney 5/6)
PENRITH 12 (Tries: David Simmons, Brad Tighe. Goals: Luke Walsh 2/2)

Venue: Centrebet Stadium, Penrith
3-Kevin Locke (NZ) 2-James Maloney (NZ) 1-Simon Mannering (NZ)
The Michael Jennings at fullback experiment

Doug Roweth


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