Liam Martin try secures Panthers the Minor Premiership after late comeback stuns Souths

Penrith have secured the Minor Premiership after a stirring late comeback to defeat South Sydney 26-22 thanks to a late Liam Martin try.

Martin had bombed two tries earlier in the piece, and had been denied another by a late Latrell Mitchell tackle, but was the hero in a game that he wasn’t even meant to play, having rolled his ankle last week.

Shorn of stars like Nathan Cleary, Jarome Luai and James Fisher-Harris, the fact that Penrith were able to win, and to win in the manner that they did, with their backs against the wall, underlines the team that they have become.

Souths more than played their part: they turned around a 20-12 deficit to lead 22-20 with less than ten minutes to play and seemed assured of a statement victory. They did not, however, count on the spirit in this Panthers side.

The was both a rematch of last year’s Grand Final and a look forward to this year’s post-season in terms of intensity and feeling. If the finals are half as good as this, we’re in for a treat.

It was a clash of styles, with Souths playing the brand of footy that has brought them from the brink of missing the eight to Premiership contenders: they spread the play, backed their skills and used their backline.

Naturally, that meant Mitchell was at the heart of everything good that they did, with several key touches, and Cody Walker wasn’t far behind him, using his dexterity and nous to straighten the defence and play out the back.

It was all a little much for Lachlan Ilias: in a game this intense, the rookie halfback spent a full two minutes down with cramp in the closing stages.

No matter how many players Penrith are missing, the fundamentals of Clearyball remain. The linespeed was relentless and the back three ran hard to make life very, very unpleasant for South Sydney. There was a lack of polish at times in good ball – as there was last week against Melbourne – but that is to be expected.

In the end, when the game was on the line, they got the job done. It will be a brave tipper who bets against them turning this Minor Premiership into another Grand Final victory.

The first half was as good a preview for the finals as anyone could have hoped for. It had all the defensive intensity, but also the endeavour in attack that pays off in the big games.

The Panthers generated the opener with their line speed, with Stephen Crichton pouncing on a loose Damien Cook pass to race away in a manner designed to give the cold sweats to anyone in cardinal and myrtle who remembered last year’s Grand Final.

Souths were undeterred, however. Twice they shifted left deep in their own half, using supreme handling skills to defeat the Panthers jamming defence, but twice were unable to capitalise.

On the third, they got the rewards. Mitchell got Johnston free to move into the Penrith end, and while he didn’t score on the play, he did several later as Walker produced an excellent delayed pass to create the space at the corner.

The Panthers weren’t as threatening in attack – though given that Souths generated six line breaks in the first half alone, that would be hard – they did get the next try, with Dylan Edwards prising open the line from a scrum play.

Souths kept coming. Jaxson Paulo might have scored at the corner before Mitchell took the Bunnies straight down main street, producing a miracle offload that got Walker under the posts.

He converted, then added another penalty goal to level the scores at the end of an exhilarating first half.

Nothing let up after the break. Martin and Paulo had bombed tries in the first half, and would bomb more: the Souths winger dropped an intercept with the line begging, then failed to hold on after Mitchell had broke free.

Martin, not to be outdone after failing to ground a Sean O’Sullivan kick in the first half, then robbed the other half, Jaeman Salmon, of a try assist by spilling over the line in contact with Isaiah Tass.

Penrith did eventually get over. After edging in front via a Crichton penalty goal, Koroisau kicked for Spencer Leniu to touch down behind the posts.

Souths were never going to change their style. They ground their way into Panthers territory, forced an error from Crichton with stiff defence and then spread faster than Penrith could slide to get in at the corner through Campbell Graham.

Anything the Bunnies can do on the right edge, they can do even better on the left. Ilias drew the line, Walker had the catch-pass and, inevitably, Johnston won the race to the corner. Mitchell, after a series of misses, nailed the conversion from the touchline to take the lead.

It wouldn’t last. Martin broke the line but was felled by Mitchell. He then played the ball to nobody and Tass, leaping on the ball, was adjudged to be offside. Crichton levelled the scores with the penalty goal.

Penrith then got another run at the line after a Paulo error and, with the whole world looking at O’Sullivan for the field goal, the Panthers went short side and finally, eventually, Martin got the ball down.

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