Penrith Panthers succumb to second-half Parramatta Eels onslaught

The Panthers travelled to Parramatta to take on the high-flying Eels, with around 500 living fans allowed to look down on the cardboard cut-outs from the corporate areas. The living fans were cheering in the second half as the Eels fought back from a 10-0 half-time deficit to win 16-10 and retain their ladder-topping position.

The Eels came out firing, peppering the Panthers line for the first five minutes of the game. Mitchell Moses clearly targeting Josh Mansour with his high kicks early and it very nearly paid off after five minutes, when Blake Ferguson batted the ball back to Ryan Matterson, who crossed untouched. The replays showed Ferguson shoving Stephen Crichton out of the way and the penalty went to the Panthers. The 500 living fans booed, the cut-outs remained indifferent.

Four minutes later the Panthers finally had their first shot at the Eels line. After a Viliame Kikau charge was pulled up short, a Nathan Cleary kick was taken on the fly by Dean Whare who appeared to score the first try of the game, but again, the bunker found that he had shoved a defender out of the way.

The game settled into the high-quality defensive battle everyone expected, until Michael Jennings made an error in his own 20 metre area, putting the Eels under more pressure. They held on and Cleary's bomb was defused on the line by Waqa Blake, before he was tackled into the in-goal area. From the drop out the stadium was moved half a metre by a massive Reagan Campbell-Gillard hit on James Fisher-Harris. The Eels were able to hold on again and received a relieving penalty.

With 15 minutes remaining in the half, another penetrative Kikau run had the Eels on their heels, before the ball was spread to the wing where Brian To'o was able to pick up a bouncing pass and slide over in the corner. Cleary hooked the conversion attempt from out wide leaving the Panthers with a 4-0 lead.

The try angered the Eels and they soon forced an error from Kikau, to go on the attack. A last-tackle grubber kick brought an Eels penalty as Whare knocked a player over in pursuit. From the ensuing set of six, the Eels sent forwards charging at the line before spreading it wide to Ferguson, who lost the ball. Mansour took off downfield before being tackled into touch and the play returned for the Eels knock-on.

With eight minutes remaining in the half a Panthers attacking set ended with an ineffective Cleary kick and the Eels survived again. They worked their way downfield before kicking to Panthers fullback Caleb Aekins and the possession and territory battle continued.

If there had been any criticism of the Panthers so far this season it was that their defence leaked plenty of points. Their attack had been good enough to cover those deficiencies, but against the Eels, they lifted their defensive intensity.

With three minutes remaining in the half, the Panthers swept the ball through hands to the right, took the tackle and then spun it back through the hands to the left. Some slick passing and a threatening Kikau decoy saw Mansour cross untouched out wide. Cleary converted and the Panthers had a well-deserved 10-0 lead, which they took to the break.

Coach Ivan Cleary would have no doubt reminded his players of the 14-0 lead they squandered two weeks earlier against the Knights. He could not have foreseen the struggle his team were about to face.

The second half started with plenty of hard runs and big hits. Five minutes in Kikau came down with a Cleary bomb on the Eels line, but was unable to ground it as he was held on his back by the defence. A Jennings backline error shortly after saw the ball back in the Panthers hands ten metres inside their own half. As fatigue started to creep into the game, more handling errors were evident.

Thirteen minutes into the half a rampaging Kane Evans was stopped short of the line by a determined Panthers defensive line. The Eels received a penalty and then another set of six from a Panthers knock-on. They were sending their best in waves at the Panthers, who were resolute in the defence of their goal line.

A clever grubber kick through from Moses was shunted dead and the Eels had the ball yet again from the drop-out. They passed to the left quickly as the Panthers scrambled, before an intercept by To'o relieved all the pressure. Penrith were determined to prevent a repeat of their efforts against the Knights.

With eighteen minutes remaining, back-to-back sets saw the black-clad line finally break, with Blake diving over out wide. Moses missed the conversion to leave the score at 10-4. As good as the Panthers had been in defence up until that point, they weren't enjoying any opportunities to add to their own score. All the action was down one end as the clock ticked down, the feeling was the Eels were coming home stronger.

From the kick-off the Eels moved downfield before Blake again cracked the defence, stepping through Crichton, before finding fullback Clint Gutherson in support for a try next to the posts. Moses converted to level the scores at 10. The Panthers were being starved of possession and the mountain of tackling was taking its toll.

Nathan Brown was the next to cut through, before a Moses grubber kick took a horrible bounce for Matterson to pounce. Moses converted to give the home team a 16-10 lead.

With three minutes remaining Moses missed a shot at field goal which would have wrapped up the result. With the ensuing seven tackles the Panthers worked their way downfield and forced a drop-out from the Eels. They had just over a minute and six tackles to level the scores. A charge from Kikau on the left was met by Moses, before a last tackle grubber kick rebounded resetting the tackle count.

As the siren sounded the Panthers were throwing the ball left and right, before Mansour tried to kick ahead and lost the ball. The Eels were victorious for the fifth time in 2020, as their living fans stood and applauded.