Penrith Panthers have staged a stunning comeback to beat the Sydney Roosters 22-20 in the SG Ball Cup Grand Final at CommBank Stadium today.
The Panthers were 20-0 down at half-time after a strong first half by the Roosters but rallied on the back of a Player of the Match performance from halfback Isaiya Katoa. The match went down to the wire with Panthers five-eighth Keagan Russell-Smith only sealing the win after landing a difficult conversion from the sideline.
“I’ve always dreamt of that as a kid; being in a Grand Final and kick a goal from the sideline,” Russell-Smith said.
“As much as the nerves were kicking in, I felt calm, just trusted in myself and knew the boys would back me.
“Once the ball sailed over it was a great feeling and something I’ll never forget.”
The Roosters boasted the best defence in the competition after conceding only 60 points all season while the Panthers attack had been on song in 2021 after being one of only two teams to score more than 200 points.
Tricolours winger Xavier Chatfield-Mooka had been strong all season, scoring at least one try in six matches, and he continued that good form when he was on the receiving end of a cut-out pass from halfback Cassius Tia to score the opening try of the match.
The Roosters backed up that play with an even more impressive long-range effort when five-eighth Ethan Strange put Robert Toia into a gap. The Roosters centre then turned a ball back inside for fullback Benjamin Dufficy to score underneath the posts. Dufficy then converted his own try and the Tricolours were well on top at 10-0.
The Roosters kept the pressure on when back-rower Michael Abdow managed to slip a nice offload for Tia. The Roosters halfback then showed plenty of guile to step his way back inside the defence and over the line to extend the lead to 14-0.
Roosters skipper and lock Joshua Wong then made a strong run up the middle which replacement hooker Benaiah Ioelu capitalised on after burrowing his way over the line from dummy-half on the next play. Ioelu then came up with another big play at the other end of the field after doing just enough to cause Panthers halfback Isaiya Katoa to lose control of the ball when he looked certain to score.
It wouldn’t be the only chance the Panthers would miss out on in the first half after winger Jesse McLean was chased down and tackled by Abdow; losing control of the ball in the process to let the Roosters off the hook and leave them with a 20-0 lead at half-time.
It was a different Penrith outfit which emerged after the break, with the mistakes that had dogged them in the first half being replaced by the type of play that had swept them into the Grand Final. The Panthers started the long road back with a sweeping backline movement that ended with McLean barging his way over in the corner to reduce the margin to 20-4.
Katoa then held a pass up nicely for Panthers captain and lock Mason Teague to charge through a gap and over the top of Dufficy to score. Five-eighth Keagan Russell-Smith converted and the Panthers were back in it at 20-10.
Panthers centre Angelis Hotare-Papalii helped reduce the margin to 20-16 when he stretched out to score and then showed great skill to suck in two defenders before popping a pass for McLean to grab his second try of the afternoon. Russell-Smith stepped up to coolly slot the conversion from the sideline to complete a remarkable fightback.
“It’s been a journey all year; the hard work and you live for those moments,” Russell-Smith said.
“It’s unreal, it’s hard to put into words because it’s just such a great feeling. It’s just an unreal feeling to come away with that, especially being down. The boys were a bit rattled, but we knew if we stuck to what we could do we would come out on top.”