In one of the more dramatic Thursday night affairs the Penrith Panthers have hung on to complete their sixth win in as many games, downing a gallant Brisbane Broncos outfit by 20-12 at Suncorp Stadium.
The Broncos led for a total of 34 minutes in a game the rugby league world had given them no chance to win but were undone by some Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai brilliance in the final ten.
Locked at 12-12 it was the incumbent NSW halfback who iced the competition’s second two-point field goal to give the visitors a two-point lead heading into the last five minutes.
Luai (7 carries for 66 metres; two try assists) then broke the hearts of the locals when he sidestepped several would-be defenders to link up with his halfback, Cleary (805 kicking metres including a 40/20) crossing for the match sealing try in the final minutes.
But it was the Broncos game to win up until that point with Kevin Walter’s side shocking the rugby league world when they took a 12-10 lead into the halftime break.
“One of the best 80 minutes performances I’ve seen them [Broncos] play for a long time,” Panthers coach Ivan Cleary admitted.
“When they scored before halftime I thought we’ve got a game on our hands.”
The Broncos led early when a Jamayne Isaako (22 carries for 221 metres) penalty goal put them two in front but were undone just minutes later when Maroons centre Kurt Capewell (8 carries for 77 metres) crossed off a brilliant flat pass from Cleary.
Tevita Pangai Junior (14 carries for 87 metres) scored in the 16th minute when a Brodie Croft cross-field kick was tipped back by centre Richie Kennar, the big man scoring with a spectacular dive in the corner.
Bench forward Ethan Bullemor (10 carries for 95 metres) entered the fray but was on the wrong end of a forward pass in his first possession of the game, only to have his fortunes turn around when a sneaky inside pass from Croft put the big man through a yawning gap.
Running 25 metres, sidestepping temporary Penrith fullback Stephen Crichton (24 carries for 236 metres), Bullemor put the Broncos in the lead at the break.
A 52nd-minute penalty goal tied things up, before some Cleary and Luai magic sealed the all-important win, skyrocketing the duo’s chances at an NSW Origin berth.
“I’d love to see him [Luai] get a chance and I don’t think he’d let anyone down,” Ivan Cleary said when questioned about his five-eighths potential origin call-up.
“In the big moments you want your big players to step up.”
Brian To’o stood tall despite being the target of an unforgiving game plan from Kevin Walters as Brisbane’s halves continually kicked to the young winger’s edge.
Running for a game high of 275 metres, the St Marys junior put in another huge contribution in what was a tight affair.
Matt Lodge (15 carries for 143 metres) and Payne Haas (18 carries for 185 metres) were impressive in a losing team, while Brodie Croft and Tom Dearden looked to steer the team around well, despite missing out on the win.
“They all aimed up tonight against a very good side,” Brisbane coach Kevin Walters said.
“In the last fifteen minutes if we execute things better we win the game.
“There’s a lot there to take out of it which is good.”