The minor premiership hopes of the Penrith Panthers NYC side have taken a major hit with an upset 28-16 loss to the lowly St George-Illawarra Dragons at WIN Stadium.
The young Panthers looked sluggish for most of the game, while the Dragons played with vigour unexpected from a side currently sitting 15th on the table and out of finals contention.
The result gives North Queensland Cowboys the chance to shoot past the Panthers to the top of the table if they can beat the Warriors in New Zealand on Saturday.
Coach Cameron Ciraldo blooded yet another youngster with debutant Brandon Nangaiti coming onto the bench for Dylan Fuad, while Daniel Brown replaced Fuimanu Enese on the wing.
Penrith’s Tyrone May, filling in at hooker for the injured Soni Luke, popped up in the 8th minute to provide the first try assist of the game. His short ball to Corey Waddell sent the back rower over from close range. Nathan Cleary missed the conversion but the Panthers had a 4-0 lead.
The Dragons hit back seven minutes later as Penrith rushed up in defence and were found desperately short on the left edge. A long pass to Dragons winger Tom Carr sent him past Brown for the try. Ryan James converted to give St George-Illawarra a 6-4 lead.
St George-Illawarra’s forwards were beginning to rumble, making big metres up the middle, and the Panthers were guilty of giving away penalties late in the tackle count.
In the 22nd minute, Dragons back rower Jacob Host cut through some soft defence and charged 20 metres to score. The conversion was waved away but Penrith were on the wrong end of a 10-4 scoreline.
Brown was caught napping in the 33rd minute, having strolled a couple of metres too far in-field, and Carr got the better of him with an athletic dive in the corner. The conversion missed to the right of uprights but the Dragons’ lead was out to double figures.
The Panthers had the final attack of the half but couldn’t find the clinical execution they were after.
HALFTIME – Dragons 14-4
Penrith put themselves back in contention with a try five minutes into the second half. Sam Elwin snatched a spiralling bomb out of the hands of Dragons fullback Matthew Dufty and crossed beside the posts. Cleary converted to make the score 14-10.
However their joy didn’t last long as Dragons centre Reuben Garrick intercepted a long ball from Elwin and ran 85 metres to score in the 49th minute. The successful conversion re-established St George-Illawarra’s ten-point buffer.
More unforced errors from the Panthers gave the Dragons prime attacking possession and a high tackle saw them opt to take the two points from directly in front. The home side led 22-10 with 18 minutes left in the contest.
The Panthers gave themselves another glimmer of hope as Cowen Epere drove his way over beside the posts in the 70th minute, and Cleary's conversion cut the lead to six.
With four minutes left, it looked like Penrith were about to unlock the Dragons defence again but Epere was deemed to have knocked on as he charged for the tryline.
The Panthers hopes were finally extinguished as St George-Illawarra prop Jay Gallagher crashed over for a 77th minute try.
FULLTIME - Dragons 28-16