REPORT: SG Ball Grand Final 2016
An injury-riddled affair at the foot of the mountains eventually broke the Illawarra Steelers, who went down to the Penrith Panthers 25-10 in the SG Ball Grand Final. Having lost their previous two encounters with Illawarra it was a mental battle for Penrith, but they put to bed any questions of a hoodoo with a convincing display at Pepper Stadium.
It was Dylan Morris, son of Illawarra legend Steve, who fittingly opened the account for the men in red with a wonderful take off a Jackson Willis kick. The conversion was unsuccessful, but the Steelers maintained a four-point lead to start the decider.
The Steelers saw through the next five minutes with the bulk of possession and field possession, earning two repeat sets on the Panthers' line. When Kereti Tautaiolefua failed to catch a line dropout, however, they let the locals off the hook and missed a key chance to extend their early lead.
Five minutes later, the Panthers did the same thing - repeated sets on the Steelers' line bore no fruit as they eventually came up with an error. It was a back-and-forth contest which, despite a few disappointing errors, looked every bit worthy of a Grand Final.
When Steelers captain Hayden Lomax was helped from the field after an ugly tackle, the signs were ominous; the same thing had happened to the Knights in the Harold Matthews game previously as Newcastle fell agonisingly short of victory. Things turned from bad to worse soon after when a strong run from Panthers second-rower William Burns brought a much-needed try - before captain Sean O'Sullivan converted to give his side a two-point lead.
The Panthers were unrelenting in attack while the Steelers tried desperately to hold on, but with just two minutes remaining in the opening stanza Penrith fullback Marlon Ritchie made sure they felt the pain. Ritchie scored a nice solo try which again was converted by O'Sullivan, giving the home side a 12-4 advantage at half-time.
The second stanza started poorly for both sides, with a few more scrappy errors and a devastating injury to Steelers hooker Cooper Purcell - but eventually the Panthers looked well ahead of their Grand Final combatants. They had ample time on the Steelers' line, who did well to hold the Panthers out until the 44th minute - at that point ring-in winger Take Tago took advantage of a good play to the left hand side and scored. A beautiful O'Sullivan conversion brought the score to 18-4.
The injury woes continued for the men from Wollongong as fullback Steven Marsters suffered a heartbreaking blow, leaving just one man on the Steelers' bench. The locals looked to exploit that and in the 55th minute did so through some Mose Feilo brilliance. The centre got a miraculous ball away to Brian Too, who crossed in what was the final nail in the Steelers' coffin. With another O'Sullivan conversion the visitors led 24 points to 4.
The Illawarra side wasn't going down without a fight and regained possession with a short kick-off. They used every weapon in their arsenal to try and break the brick-wall Penrith defence, but were ultimately unsuccessful - the Panthers muscled up without the ball.
The game descended into an error-fest with poor handling from both sides, but the result was all but locked up at the foot of the mountains. The Steelers, however, gave it their all and Morris eventually scored his second via a wonderful take of another Jackson Wills bomb. The winger made a 50-metre line-break off the resulting kick-off as the Steelers put forward a last-ditch effort on the Panthers' line.
Once again, however, the Panthers' defence was simply too strong and they shut out the Steelers for the remainder of the game. A Marlon Ritchie field goal on full-time was icing on the cake for what was an impeccable performance - the Panthers secured the 2016 SG Ball premiership with a 25-10 victory.