Usually, it’s insult that gets added injury in the tradition of sports literature.
But words on the page mean little next to the physics-deforming power of Nathan Cleary’s right boot.
For Josh Mansour on Friday night, instead it was injury upon injury upon repeated insult inflicted by Cleary’s taunting torpedoes.
As the game between two premiership contenders hung in the balance during the second half. What hung higher were Cleary’s barely fathomable bombs.
Time and again he unleashed at the space between Mansour and nervous team-mate Latrell Mitchell, and the mistakes — one drop, one desperate bat dead, two calamitous injuries — helped the Panthers come out on top 25-12 after trailing early by two converted tries.
Cleary was imperious in his return from a shoulder injury. And no moment revealed the potency of Cleary’s leather more than Mansour’s final contribution.
After letting another swirling bomb bounce, the Rabbitohs’ winger hesitated, plucked the ball at the last moment then dropped into the legs of the chasing Panthers trying to avoid giving up a drop-out.
He came up wincing in agony, a cut to his face pouring with blood and a knee injury that could yet prove to be serious. It was his final act in the match and perhaps, sadly, even the season.
But fans recognised this to be pain inflicted by Cleary: 50 metres away but inside Mansour’s head.
The kicking duel
Cleary’s kicking was a fitting way to turn the contest, which had earlier been set alight by his counterpart Adam Reynolds’ exquisite first half forty-twenty.
He revealed on Monday he didn’t actually know it was a forty-twenty until after the game, instead thinking in the moment it had been touched.
The Souths half also said last year’s semi-final loss to the Panthers — in which the only thing standing between the Rabbitohs and a crucial forty-twenty was Reynolds’ toes on the 40-metre line — was motivation to try again.
“We got caught in that position last year, and we were millimetres away from nailing that one so I thought I would give it another crack,” he said.
But that miraculous touch finder was forgotten when the Panthers pinned back the Rabbitohs in the second half.
Penrith coach Ivan Cleary said targeting Mansour wasn’t a pre-match plan, but after some success, Cleary smelled blood.
“It was smart to keep going back there,” he said.
“That’s what Nath does, that’s why he’s so important to the team.”
In the duel between two of the finest with the boot, Cleary won on points. His 844 metres gained and two forced drop-outs comprised perhaps the standout kicking performance this season.
The Panthers half is in another class with long kicks compared to the rest of the competition. Just 11 players are averaging more than 300 kicking metres per match. Cleary is the only one above 400 metres. He’s at 533.
Length isn’t everything
As Adam Reynolds showed with his forty-twenty on Friday night, kickers may not always choose or need to pursue pure distance.
An analysis of the outcomes from kicks for the game’s best kickers shows Parramatta’s Mitch Moses has regularly produced positive outcomes from kicks, while keeping the number of kicks that lead to 20-metre restarts low.
But those raw statistics also neglect where kickers are launching from.
According to Adam Reynolds, there’s one thing he looks for when letting fly.
“We like to think we’re a pretty fit team, and want to keep the ball in play as much as we can,” he said.
“My kicking game doesn’t really change, it’s about putting teams in corners, trying tee off our [defence], and from there we can hope they make a mistake and we can capitalise with good field position.”
Cleary consistently pins teams into their own 20-metre zones on their first play the ball, but Reynolds might be even better. Opposing teams regularly have their first play the ball inside their own 15 after a Reynolds kick.
No-one kicks from just inside the 40 metres more than Manly’s Daly Cherry-Evans. He’s tied with Reynolds and Ben Hunt for most forty-twenties this year with three.
A September finals series with Cleary, Reynolds, Moses and Cherry-Evans? NRL fans will be kicking themselves if they miss it.