Saturday 10 September 2022

Cleary's masterclass puts Penrith within a game of 3rd straight Grand Final - 2022 NRL Finals Series

Published September 10, 2022 

Rusty huh?

"Are you going to be rusty?" was one of the pointed questions that Penrith's Nathan Cleary had to answer in a mid-week press conference ahead of last night's Qualifying Final and given the way he smiled and shrugged it off, we all should have been ready for what he delivered.
Although the first 15 minutes or so may not have been amongst Cleary's best of the season so far - the next 65 odd were, as the Penrith halfback produced a masterclass to send the Panthers into their third straight Preliminary Final with a 27-8 win over Parramatta to open the 2022 NRL Finals Series.
Cleary was especially irrepressible in the 2nd Half, lifting the Panthers onto his back and giving the Parramatta defensive line fits. 
He continually tested their resolve to run out at him (to take his time away) by cutting back on the inside of his direct opponent, and at all times HE wanted the ball. Once he got into sync, nothing was going to stop him from being the main conductor for the Panthers and when he clicked into gear - so did Penrith.
He set up all four Penrith tries with a combination of up tempo ball play, incisive running and judicious kicking, especially with the latter aspect as he terrorised Waqa Blake with high kick after high kick - getting value for his investments in cruelty almost every time.
There was little doubt Cleary would be primed to have a major impact on this game after his last foray against the Eels resulted in a 5 week holiday, but it is important to note that his opening to this game was so-so and it wasn't until he started to target Blake with his kicking game (after starting off the match going after Maika Sivo with little result) that the Cleary factor kicked in.
He then made Parramatta - and case in point Reagan Campbell-Gillard on the final try to James Fisher-Harris - look second rate and his 9-9.5/10 performance (with respect, it wasn't quite a 10/10) has Penrith on the verge of a third consecutive Grand Final appearance and a great chance at making it back to back Premierships.
Cleary wasn't alone in taking Penrith to another Preliminary Final - all the usual suspects for the Panthers were pretty good, but it was in defence that the Penrith team first attitude really shone. They pounded Parramatta with their defence, and sure Cleary put the finishing touches on all the tries but it was how Penrith re-adopted their September defensive mindset from 12 months ago that really impressed. 
Make no mistake, Penrith are switched on for a title defence.
As for Parramatta, they were pretty good in the first half when they earned their chances in attack but wasteful with their red-zone possessions - especially during the period when Taylan May was sin-binned - and their only try came from a Reed Mahoney face pass to Oregon Kaufusi that exposed Api Koroisau. 
In attack they just looked a little same same without being able to land a real punch, but in their defence it was Penrith's scrambling defence that denied Sivo a number of times, and none of Mitchell Moses, Dylan Brown or Clint Gutherson never seemed set to take the game by the scruff of the neck and make Penrith pay for giving the Eels good field position. This can't happen next week no matter who they play.
As in Semi Final football - not taking those chances loses you big games - and this was a BIG game.
Now Parramatta must rest up, hope and pray Moses recovers from being knocked out, and prepare for a visit from Melbourne or Canberra next Friday night. 
While you understand the strategy, coach Brad Arthur also squeezed a lot of juice out of Junior Paulo in the 1st half, and again in the 2nd half when the game seemed gone (he played 59 minutes across 3 stints - including 2 stints in the 1st half) and you imagine this will take something out of him for next week... and this 'all-in' approach on Paulo meant Arthur only used bench prop Makahesi Makatoa for the final 6 minutes - making you wonder if former first choice lock Nathan Brown isn't deemed worthy of playing those 6 minutes - why is he even in the game-day squad as 18th man?
Another Arthur selection that makes little sense is continuing to pick Blake on the wing where his major deficiency (his hands or lack thereof) can be exposed, and in turn the continued selection of Tom Opacic at centre (with respect he offers nothing compared to what you'd get from Blake at centre), especially when right winger Bailey Simonsson was pretty good for Parra all year til he got injured and now can't get back into the team. Sure Parramatta won games with Opacic in the side but they also won games with Simonsson on the wing with Blake at centre... surely at Finals time you pick your best combination?
Those are questions that Brad Arthur must seek to answer because only elimination footy lays ahead for the Eels, barely a week after many talked them up as Premiership contenders.
As for Nathan Cleary and his Panthers, they await the victor out of the other side of the Finals draw - one of Cronulla, North Queensland, Easts or Souths - in a Preliminary Final in two weeks time. 
Full Time:
Penrith Panthers 27 (Brian To'o 2, Dylan Edwards, James Fisher-Harris Tries; Nathan Cleary 5/5 Goals, 1 Field Goal)
Parramatta Eels 8 (Oregon Kaufusi Try; Mitchell Moses 2/2 Goals)
At Penrith Stadium, Crowd: 21,863, Referee: Gerard Sutton.
Up Next in Finals Week 1:
1st Elimination Final - Melbourne v Canberra.
2nd Qualifying Final - Cronulla v North Queensland.
2nd Elimination Final - Easts v Souths.
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