Penrith may have suffered a bitter defeat against the Bulldogs last weekend for the 50th anniversary match, but they more than made up for it with Saturday’s showdown against the 2015 grand finalists. Once again the game took place at Pepper Stadium, and from the outset it looked as if Brisbane were going to carry it. With the score at 22-12 halftime, and the Panthers not scoring again until 17 minutes into the second forty minutes, the stage was set for the most dramatic second half in a round that’s been driven by dramatic second halves. As with the clash between the Tigers and the Titans at Cbus later in the evening, it was a try just before the break that gave the underdogs the surge they needed, with Bryce Cartwright putting one to ground halfway through the thirty-ninth minute to bring Penrith within reasonable sight of a comeback.
The Penrith victory was all the more remarkable in that this is a team functioning without most of their big stars. With Matt Moylan, Trent Merrin, James Segeyaro and Dean Whare all out for the count, there was space for the team’s young guns to really shine. If Round 3 was defined by strong second halves, then the competition as a whole this year has been defined by teams managing to carry on without their big-name players, proof that 2016 is likely to be a bit of a watershed year for the next footy generation. As Kerrod Holland’s performance for the Dogs last week made clear, it’s only when some of the big stars are taken off the field that you start to get a glimpse of how much talent is waiting in the wings.
Even Holland’s performance, however, couldn’t compare with Te Maire Martin’s debut at five-eighth on Saturday night. Not only did he put in a deft right-foot step to level the score at the 72nd minute, but a perfectly placed field goal brought Brisbane to their knees in the 77th minute. In a game that was always going to be won by a field goal or an error, Martin was in the right place at the right time, and proved himself to be a more than worthy replacement for Moylan, even if he’s going to be moving back to the NSW Cup next week. Although Jamie Soward’s kicking game wasn’t as on point as last week, then, it was almost a blessing in disguise, just because it paved the way for a Panthers young gun to set up a one-point victory that more than outshone the one-point loss to the Dogs the previous week. Combined with an opening try from Peta Hiku, it was clear that Penrith have both the new faces and storied veterans needed to make a run for the finals this year if they can build upon this momentum.
Of course, the victory was all the sweeter in that Anthony Griffin and Wayne Bennett have something of a friendly rivalry as coaches. In fact, Griffin seems to be the only coach who can really hold his own against the NRL’s most enigmatic figure, having only lost one in nine of the last matches he has played against Bennett-coached teams. It must have been particularly galling too, for Bennett to witness his team lose for the first time since the Grand Final to another field goal, especially because they didn’t score once in the second half. To move from a mid-game lead to a field goal loss is a pretty sorry prospect, and the Broncos need to regroup before their Grand Final replay next Friday, especially since the Cowboys have had an extra forty-eight hours to recover after squaring off against the Roosters on Thursday night.
Nevertheless, the news wasn’t all bad for Brisbane. After all, Bennett has a tendency to lose closely, with his last two defeats before the Grand Final – to the Bulldogs in Round 22 and the Roosters in Round 24 – only involving a couple of points. In an opening couple of rounds in which some of the most stalwart teams have conceded so many points, it’s impressive that the Broncos kept up the grind until the very end. At the very least, the game was a showcase for Anthony Milford, who is fast becoming the best half in the competition, scoring two tries and setting up a third for Ben Hunt in a dominant opening forty minutes. Although last night was the first Brisbane loss of the season, it was also the first moment at which Milford really felt as if he’d hit the same level he brought to the Grand Final, which should make him a force to be reckoned with come Saturday night.