Last year when assistant coach Trent Barrett informed the Panthers that he had been offered the head coaching job at the Bulldogs, they gave him their blessing, with one proviso: he was not to speak to any of the players about leaving with him. At season's end the Bulldogs announced the signing of Panthers forward Jack Hetherington and star half of the future Matt Burton. Barrett may well have kept his word, but his presence no doubt played a big part in those signings.
Hetherington is already wearing the blue and white to rave reviews, while Burton has another year at the Panthers before moving to Belmore. The Bulldogs have tried everything to have Burton released from the final year of his contract, even optimistically leaving a roster spot open for him. The Panthers have been resolute in insisting that Burton is staying put and, on Thursday night against the Storm, we saw exactly why. Burton is not just a star of the future; he is a ready-made replacement for either of the Panthers halves right now. With Nathan Cleary recovering from concussion, Burton stepped into the team and the Panthers didn't skip a beat.
His opening touch was a screaming left footed torpedo punt which flew deep into Storm territory, despite being kicked into a slight head wind. He was involved in a heavy one-on-one tackle shortly after, before his next kick was along the ground, again finding valuable territory. An ensuing error by Jacob Olam saw the Panthers deep on the attack, with Burton handling the ball twice during the set, allowing Jarome Luai to take the majority of the play. Burton did blot his early contributions by slipping over at the end of that set of six before he could get a kick away.
The first try of the match was scored by the Storm's Brandon Smith, taking off from dummy-half to power through the Panthers' goal line defence. Smith is another player the cashed up Bulldogs have been linked to for next year.
The game set into an arm-wrestle period, with the referee seemingly forgetting all about his 'six-again' powers, despite the local crowd baying at multiple Storm indiscretions. It was the kind of game where every metre of territory counted and Burton was continuing to impress with his long range kicking. His opportunities to run and pass were limited, but his defence proved solid on each occasion it was tested.
In the 25th minute he took the ball to the defence, 30 metres out from the Storm line. He dummied, stepped off his left and straightened, but was nailed by three Storm defenders. Not two minutes later he threw a sharp pass, as part of a set play down the left-hand side of the field. Brian To'o was in the clear and looked set to score in the corner, but his foot was shown to have touched the sideline and the try was disallowed.
The Panthers' first try came down their right-hand side with Luai combining with fullback Dylan Edwards and Paul Momirovski to send Charlie Staines over after 29 minutes. The scores were locked at 6-6 and with the first half seconds ticking away Burton lined up from 45 metres out for a shot at a rare and as yet unseen two-point field goal. His attempt was charged down before it left the ground, so we gained no insight into the power of his drop kicks.
Early in the second half Burton ran onto a well-timed pass from Luai, stepped twice off his left foot, and powered his way towards the line before being stopped once again by the fabled Storm defence. The Panthers were attacking in waves now and the desperate Storm defenders were pulling out every trick in their kit to slow things down. With the crowd roaring, the referee started handing out tackle count restarts and penalties. The Panthers were enjoying all the possession and missed a chance to take a two-point lead 51 minutes into the game when Stephen Crichton missed a penalty shot at goal.
Storm champion Cameron Munster released all the pressure with a timely one-on-one strip from Panthers replacement forward Liam Martin. A couple of minutes later Munster lost the ball in a Crichton tackle. Little moments were conspiring to select a winner of this intriguing contest.
With 25 minutes remaining a fourth tackle raid down the left, saw Burton put through an ineffective grubber kick. He then answered the question about the power of his drop kick by sending a goal line dropout 60 metres on the fly, finding the turf behind the deepest Storm player before rolling another 10 metres. Burton then forced another Storm error with a big hit in defence.
The Storm players were exhausted, but as we have all come to expect, they had enough juice in the tank to send Josh Addo-Carr over in the corner, taking a 10-6 lead with 16 minutes remaining. Burton almost replied with a 40-20 not long after, only tapping the ball really, but he was denied by some brilliant work from Storm fullback Nicho Hynes.
With their best player from the first half, fullback Edwards, missing with a broken hand and the Storm leading by four, coach Ivan Cleary moved Burton to the right side, hoping to reignite the Panthers' lethal left by returning Luai to that side. A double-pump pass from Burton that ended up in the arms of a Storm player might have prompted the move.
Instead it was on the right where Kurt Capewell weaved his way through the defence to level the scores with just two minutes remaining, with Burton directing him into the gap. Crichton made no mistake with the conversion and the Panthers took the lead 12-10 with 40 seconds remaining. A short kick-off saw the Panthers spill the ball, giving the Storm one last chance at victory. They passed the ball from one side of the field to the other before Olam appeared to beat Burton and Viliame Kikau to score the match-winner.
A lengthy review process showed Kikau was knocked down on one side of the field, lay there for a while looking for a penalty, before jumping to his feet to race across where he miraculously shoved his arm under the ball to prevent Olam from scoring the try. Burton too was involved in the mad scramble to save the game.
It was an incredible end to an incredible game of rugby league and Burton played his part like a seasoned veteran, rather than an inexperienced 21-year-old from Dubbo.
Five-eighth Luai enthused after the game; "He's the man. He has probably the biggest boot in the NRL and we used his kicking to get the field position we needed tonight."
The night proved the Panthers were absolutely right to hang onto Burton and it showed exactly why the Bulldogs are so keen to throw a blue and white jersey on him as soon as possible. But that's unlikely to be before 2022.