Penrith Panthers finals hopes are dwindling after a heartbreaking 34-24 loss to Canberra Raiders at Pepper Stadium on Sunday.
The result leaves Penrith likely needing to win the remainder of their seven regular season games to sneak into the finals in 2015.
David Simmons was a late withdrawal for the Panthers with Robert Jennings coming onto the wing, and Api Koroisau dropping off the bench.
Panthers workhorse Elijah Taylor, playing his 100th NRL game, celebrated the milestone with the opening try after six minutes. On the back of a strong run Reagan Campbell-Gillard offloaded in the tackle, with James Segeyaro cleaning up the scraps and putting Taylor over for his first try of the season. Soward converted for a 6-0 lead.
An error from Panthers fullback Will Smith in the play-the-ball gave the Raiders attacking possession in the 10th minute and they took full advantage. Penrith’s left edge defence was found desperately short on numbers and winger Jordan Rapana strolled over untouched. Croker slotted the sideline coversion for a 6-6 scoreline.
A slice of luck went the way of the Panthers seven minutes later as a Soward bomb was tapped down by Waqa Blake, for Isaah Yeo to cut back through the defence and dive over. The video referee gave the green lights despite some suggestion Blake propelled the ball forward. Soward converted to pull ahead 12-6.
However Penrith were being the masters of their own demise. Another error and a fifth-tackle penalty later, Raiders prop Paul Vaughan powered over from close range. The simple conversion locked the game up at 12-12.
It didn’t take Penrith long to hit back. On the fifth tackle the Panthers ran it and James Segeyaro suddenly found himself with the ball in his hands and open space in front of him. A jink and a step later, the hooker buried over beneath the posts and the Panthers were ahead 18-12 in the 26th minute.
The scoreboard was ticking over again three minutes later after former Panther Blake Austin went straight through Penrith’s defensive line and offloaded for Croker, who sent Shaun Fensom over for the try. With ten minutes to go until the break, the score was tied up 18-18.
Both sides were guilty of pushing the pass in the closing moments of the first half as they headed to the sheds with scores level.
The defensive lines which had leaked six tries in the first forty minutes appeared to have tightened up as the teams emerged for the second half.
Prop Nigel Plum’s game was over in the 52nd minute as he copped the full force of a sickening head clash with Josh Papalii and was assisted from the field.
After a period of resolute tackling, it was the Panthers’ defence that cracked first in the 55th minute. A well-disguised short ball from Josh Hodgson gave Vaughan his second try of the day and the Raiders a 24-18 lead.
Lewis Brown made an incisive break during the Panthers’ next set but after expertly drawing the fullback, his ball on the inside only found the hands of a retreating Raider.
Penrith fans didn’t have to wait long, though, as Jennings found acres of space on the right wing and won the race to the corner for a 62nd minute try. Soward slotted the sideline conversion to draw level 24-24.
Canberra pulled ahead again four minutes later as Blake was caught napping on the short side and Rapana got on his outside for his second try of the afternoon. The difficult conversion attempt missed to the left of the posts, leaving the score 28-24.
The result was put beyond doubt in cruel fashion for the Panthers as Raiders winger Edrick Lee charged down and gathered a Peter Wallace kick with four minutes left on the clock. Lee streaked away on an 85-metre run to the tryline. Croker’s simple conversion made the final score 34-24.
FULL-TIME: Canberra Raiders 34-24