By Steve Greige
The Sydney Roosters have won their third SG Ball Cup premiership in seven seasons coming from behind to break Penrith’s heart in a classic golden point thriller 34-30 at Leichhardt Oval.
Roosters x-factor fullback Latrell Mitchell was the hero for the Tricolours scoring twice in the final six minutes of this entertaining encounter to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and thoroughly deserved his man of the match award.
With both teams having shared the spoils in their two previous close encounters this season, the third kind promised to be another cliff-hanger and didn’t disappoint the packed grandstand at the Tigers spiritual home ground.
The Panthers were on the prowl in the opening exchanges racing away to what appeared to be a match winning 20-0 lead after only twelve minutes in the 50th year of this historic competition.
Penrith’s classy five-eighth Nathan Cleary got the scoreboard ticking in the 4th minute when he aimed a grubber kick at the posts and although Mitchell retrieved it in his in-goal, the quick-thinking Cleary bag snatched it off the Roosters fullback to score his first try of the Grand Final. One of the competition’s top point scorers, Cleary converted his own try to give the Panthers an early 6-0 lead.
Cleary was in everything early and on the back of his mid-field break two minutes later, ball-playing fullback Tyrone May threw a cut-out pass to his left centre Christian Crichton and he crossed in the grandstand corner.
Crichton appeared to ‘falcon’ a Cleary bomb in the 10th minute before the ball found its way out to try scoring machine Fuimanu Enese to score his first and extend the Panthers lead to 14-0.
In the next set after the restart, Penrith hooker Casey Lafaele made a break and May finished it off with a bullet-like spiral pass to Enese to score his 7th try of the final series. It was a case of third time lucky for Cleary finally converting from the sideline to continue their dream start.
But a knock-on from Panthers prop Cowen Epere in the next set after the kick-off gave the Roosters their first real chance in good field position and they made the most of it with halfback Chad O’Donnell getting his back rower Issac Crichton on the outside of Cleary from close range to open their account. Co-Captain Paul Momorovski added the extras to reduce the deficit to 20-6.
Two unconverted tries in the space of four minutes courtesy of Travis Edwards’ kicks to both Roosters centres Momorovski and Chevi Ellis made it 20-14 with ten minutes left until halftime.
The boys from Bondi then amazingly levelled things up at 20-all three minutes before the break when Panthers centre Christian Crichton knocked on a Roosters grubber kick and Edwards regathered to score his 5th try of the season. Momorovski converted and Sydney went to the sheds with all the momentum.
It was a scrappy start to the second stanza from both sides but that all changed in the 44th minute when interchange player Mario-Joseph El Boustani soared above Roosters winger Johnny Tuivasa-Scheck to catch a Soni Luke bomb and dive over to help the Panthers regain the lead 24-20.
Penrith were starting to apply the blowtorch to the Roosters midway through the second half and despite some desperate last-ditch defence from the Tricolours, the Panthers went further in front in the 57th minute when Cleary did it all himself chasing through his own grubber to score his second of the match and sixth of the season. The prolific point scorer piloted the conversion through the posts to give his side what appeared to be another match winning ten point buffer.
However the Roosters seem to thrive on the thrill of the chase but left their run very late to score twice in the final four minutes of regulation time.
In the 66th minute Tuivasa-Scheck made amends for a forgettable few minutes when he flew onto a one-armed Sonny Bill Williams like ball from back rower Reuben Porter and the speedster scorched down the sideline to score in the corner to peg it back to 30-24.
With a posse of Roosters first graders cheering them on from the stands, the Tricolours levelled things up at 30-all in the last minute of regulation time when O’Donnell popped a ball back on the inside to Mitchell and the game breaker slipped out of a few tackles to score the equaliser. Having missed a similar kick to send a semi-final match into extra time last season whilst playing for the Rabbitohs, Momorovski exorcised some of those demons by nailing the pressure kick 18 metres in from touch in front of a hushed grandstand to send this epic grand final into extra time.
Rugby League may be the greatest game of all but it can be cruel sometimes and one of the Panthers best today, and all season, Nathan Cleary found this out in the third minute of golden point when he attempted a match winning field goal from 35 metres out.
Cleary now knows how one of Leichhardt Oval’s favourite sons Benny Elias feels after his sweetly timed kick hit the top of the right upright almost knocking the flag off and rebounded back into the field of play.
In a game that had everything it was only fitting that this grand finale would have a Hollywood ending and Latrell Mitchell would be the hero for the Roosters and the villain for the Panthers.
They say ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man’ and man of the match and of the hour Mitchell did just that cutting back inside off his right foot ten metres out in the 74th minute and getting down low to dive over for his 16th try of the season and next to the posts for the match winner.
Mitchell was instantly mobbed by his teammates as they piled on top of him under the posts to celebrate a greater grand final comeback than the Roosters first grade side did against Manly in last year’s NRL decider.
The celebrations continued after the siren as Roosters coach Anthony Barnes was dunked with Gatorade by his happy players.
The Roosters now have the chance to be National Champions if they can overcome the Townsville Stingers on their home turf next weekend in Cowboys country.
Sydney Roosters 34 (L Mitchell 2, I Crichton, P Momorovski, C Ellis, T Edwards, J Tuisava-Scheck tries; P Momorovski 3 goals) def. Penrith Panthers 30 (F Enese 2, N Cleary, C Crichton, M El Boustani, S Luke tries; N Cleary 3 goals) in Golden Point at Leichhardt Oval.