The Penrith Panthers NYC side have consolidated their spot on top of the competition table with a hard-fought 22-8 win over South Sydney Rabbitohs at Pepper Stadium on Friday night.
Coach Cameron Ciraldo was forced to make a number of late changes, with skipper Brent Naden, centre Robert Jennings and prop Oliver Clark called up for the U20s NSW side.
Dylan Edwards shifted to fullback in place of Naden, Logan Geyer was named in the centres and Tyrone May was listed in the halves alongside Soni Luke.
The disruption to their regular squad did not favour the Panthers in the opening stages as they struggled to get a foothold in the match.
The referee was keen to stamp his authority on the game with Penrith prop Moses Leota sent to the sin bin in the 6th minute for repeated infringements. With the Panthers barely having touched the ball, let alone completed a set, Souths converted the penalty from directly in front to open the scoring 2-0.
However from the ensuing play penalties began to turn momentum in the Panthers favour, providing them with their first real attacking opportunities.
Despite this, it was the Rabbitohs that scored the opening try of the game in the 14th minute. Fullback Devan Makoare Boyce collected a Panthers kick inside his own in-goal, before shirking the waiting defence and sprinting the length of the field to score. The conversion pushed the Bunnies out to an 8-0 lead.
The next set saw Leota making the most of his return to the field, snapping up a deflected kick to crash over the tryline in 19th minute, only to be ruled offside. But the Panthers were quick to capitalise on their newfound momentum.
A spiralling pass from Soni Luke cut rocketed into the hands of Logan Geyer who bested three defenders to find the line in the 22nd minute. The try was awarded but the conversion from Edwards missed, leaving the score 8-4.
HALF-TIME: Rabbitohs 8-4
The Panthers opened strongly in the second half with May showcasing his skills with a 49th minute try. He collected a short pass, charged into a gap and crashed over the top of the Souths fullback.
The successful conversion from Edwards pushed the Panthers ahead for the first time in the clash, giving them a 10-8 lead.
The home side continued their surge with another try three minutes later.
Hooker Sione Katoa slipped the ball to Cowen Epere, who dominated two Souths defenders to claim the four points under the posts. The simple conversion extended the Panthers’ lead to 16-8.
Play became bogged down in the middle third as the second half wore on – both sides unable to make the most of their attacking opportunities.
The play was stopped in the final five minutes with an injured Panther Soni Hala stretchered from the field after being dumped in a heavy tackle.
With the restart of play, Katoa capped off the win by spinning out of a tackle and burrowing his way over from close range.
The conversion made the final score 22-8 and got the young Panthers back to their winning ways.
FULL- TIME: Panthers 22-8