The Penrith Panthers’ slim finals hopes have been extinguished in cruel fashion with a heartbreaking 10-4 loss at TIO Stadium on Saturday.
Jamie Soward’s 200th NRL game ended in tears for the Panthers, who paid the price for multiple missed opportunities as Parramatta scored a late try to steal the win.
Following a standout season in NSW Cup, backrower Tupou Sopoaga was named to make his debut for the Panthers off the bench. Coach Ivan Cleary shifted Tyrone Peachey into the starting side, Bryce Cartwright back to the bench and Api Koroisau was again the man to miss out.
It was a nervous start to the Darwin fixture as both sides coughed up the ball in their opening sets, before Penrith took charge of possession and field position.
Four minutes in, Panthers winger Waqa Blake almost snared the first try with an athletic dive but his leg touched down over the sideline before the ball was grounded. Another opportunity went begging not long after as Blake’s hands let him down on the end of a looped pass.
Soward had the ball on a string early and his deft grubbers forced the Eels to defend their own goal line for four consecutive sets. After several minutes on the attack, the Panthers finally had their reward as some smart work from James Segeyaro out of dummy half put Blake over in the corner. Soward missed the conversion attempt but Penrith led 4-0 after 18 minutes.
In the 25th minute Lewis Brown was led from the field with a badly busted nose, giving Sopoaga his first taste of NRL action as a Panther – albeit in the centres rather than his more familiar position in the back row.
With some further magic off the boot, Soward forced the Eels to defend more back to back sets and after 33 minutes Will Smith crashed over. However the video referee was called for and ruled the Panthers fullback had lost the ball at the final second.
With handling errors and ill-discipline creeping into the Panthers’ game, the Eels suddenly worked their way into contest and were determined to take an improbable halftime lead. Only some desperate scrambling from Penrith managed to repel them.
In the final seconds before the break, the Eels were awarded a penalty just to the right of the posts and opted to take the two points. However Luke Kelly somehow pushed the kick wide and the score remained unchanged.
HALFTIME – Panthers 4-0
Brown returned to the field at the start of the second half but the Panthers were almost immediately on the back foot. A huge kick return from Semi Radradra gave the Eels attacking possession and seconds later the bustling winger was on the end of quick hands to score a 44th minute try. Kelly was off target with his conversion attempt, leaving scores level.
The Panthers looked set to repeat the theory a couple of minutes later as Smith made an incisive kick return of his own. However an unforced handling error from Isaac John denied them their chance at retaking the lead.
The Darwin heat and fatigue appeared to be having an effect on both sides as the match crept into the final 20 minutes.
Penrith were showing steel in defence but poor discipline with ball-in-hand continued to put their defensive line under pressure. Fortunately the Eels were also guilty in that regard, with dropped ball costing them more time camped on the Panthers’ line.
In the 70th minute Penrith had another chance to score, but on the end of a slick move and with only the tryline in front of him, Blake fumbled.
Two minutes later it was Soward who couldn’t handle a tough pass on the break.
It was the opening that Parramatta needed and in the 74th minute a cross-field bomb saw a ‘no try’ decision referred upstairs. Fortunately for the Panthers, the red lights flashed as winger Bureta Faraimo was ruled to have knocked on.
However a minute later Eels’ fullback Reece Robinson made it look simple as he ran from dummy half, through a yawning gap and away on an 80m sprint to score beside the posts. Kelly made no mistake with the conversion and Parramatta led 10-4 with three minutes to go.
The Panthers tossed the ball around in their final set, desperate to find a way through, but the Eels held firm to maintain their unbeaten run in Darwin.
FULLTIME – Parramatta 10-4