There is no hiding from Penrith in the harsh gaze of semi-final NRL football.

That’s how it was supposed to be: Parramatta was meant to really hit Penrith, hit them, shake their cage, rub some dirt on them.

The Eels were destined to beat the Panthers for the third time this year or get close enough that everyone thought they were the team that could defy the minor premiers’ quest to come back.

It was like that for about 45 minutes. The Eels, who have become a popular premiership pick in recent weeks, went toe-to-toe with the Panthers.

The football was fast and physical, tough and uncompromising, the kind of game where the cream would undoubtedly come out on top when it mattered.

The eels were at it, until they weren’t anymore.

It didn’t take long: there was a cloud of dust, some roaring into the night, some blood on the field and then the game was over, Penrith was leading 27-8 and Parramatta wondered how the hell it happened. .

It was so close, until it wasn’t.

Finals football is the crucible of fire in which the true nature of a team is revealed. All the regular-season swagger doesn’t fly when your season is on the line.

You are what you are, and the lights are bright enough for all to see.

After three seasons at the top, with a premiership to their names and looking good for a second, we know exactly who Penrith is, exactly what they’re all about and exactly how they win games at this time of year.

They play to his strengths, which are his physicality on defense, the athleticism of his runs on offense and Nathan Cleary’s kicking game.

They know that if they do those things well enough for long enough, the other team will collapse before them and they have absolute confidence in their methods and their madness after they won the premiership last year.

As he was in that decider, Cleary was the best player on the field.

His kicking game was dynamite all night, whether it was clear kicks, attacking grubbers, or those wild and untamed corkscrew bombs that make you cringe as hard as any big punch.

A man celebrates scoring a try in an NRL match
Cleary’s kicking game was on display once again. (Getty Images: Mark Kolbe)

Waqa Blake will see those bombs in his nightmares after the Eels flyer drops four of them.

That’s the other aspect of the Panthers: once they spot a weakness, they attack. They lock their jaws on it and won’t let go until their prey stops moving.

Eels can play that way for a while, and they did.

His strikers are just as mean and mean as Penrith’s.

No one in the league hits the ball as sweetly as Cleary, but Mitchell Moses comes close.

They can run and attack with malicious intent. All the ingredients are there.

But they can’t do it for as long as Penrith.

If that sounds like a simple way of putting it, that’s because rugby league is a simple game and the Panthers play it in a simple way.

Why make it complicated when it doesn’t have to be and it has worked so many times before?

Expect more of the same when the Panthers play in the preliminary final in two weeks.

They don’t have to change, because no one has found a solution for their particular brand of rugby league brutalism.

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