The Penrith Panthers NSW Cup side just missed out on the minor premiership despite a thrilling 34-28 comeback victory over Illawarra Cutters at Pepper Stadium on Saturday.
Mounties secured minor premiership honours on points difference after their victory over the Warriors, with Wyong finishing in second and Penrith forced to settle for third spot on the table.
Panthers debutant Ray Lesoa scored three tries in an incredible back-and-forth match against the Cutters, inspiring his side to a morale-boosting win ahead of the finals.
Penrith had the majority of possession in the early stages of the match. The forwards were hitting the Illawarra line at pace, opening up space for the backs to test the away side’s goal line defence.
The Panthers capitalised on their strong start with a try in the second minute. A strong set ended with Chris Smith catching the final pass to cross the try line. Sione Katoa converted and Penrith were in front 6-0.
The Panthers extended their lead with another try in the eighth minute. Lesoa pounced on a misplaced pass by the Cutters and ran 60 metres to plant the ball under the posts. Katoa kicked the conversion and the Panthers led 12-0.
The Cutters put themselves back in the contest by scoring a try in the 13th minute. Ex- Panther Etu Nabuli caught a kick on the wing, offloaded inside and Peni Botiki was backing up to score. Blake Wallace kicked the conversion to make it 12-6.
Illawarra levelled the scores with their second try of the afternoon in the 17th minute. A bad read in defence by the Panthers opened up space in the middle of the field and Wallace slipped through to score untouched from close range. Wallace converted to level the scores.
On the back of a penalty, the Cutters then took the lead with a try in the 20th minute. An audacious no-look flick pass gave hard-running Adam Clune a clear path to the tryline. Wallace converted to make the score 18-12.
Riding a wave of momentum, the Cutters extended their lead with a 30th minute try. Botiki ran a good line to score his second try of the game, darting through a big gap in Penrith’s defence. Wallace’s conversion gave Illawarra a 24-12 lead at the break.
HALF-TIME: 24-12 CUTTERS
With coach Garth Brennan’s words clearly ringing in their ears, the Panthers came out full of enthusiasm and scored a much-needed try in the 45th minute. Repeat sets in the opposition 20 metre zone put pressure on the defensive line and Matt Eisenhuth caught a short pass to stretch out and plant the ball. Katoa kicked the conversion and the Panthers cut the deficit to six points.
Penrith were right back in the contest when they scored again in the 49th minute. The halves spread the ball to the left and Lesoa ducked out of a tackle near the corner flag to score his second try. Katoa’s attempted conversion was waved away, leaving the Cutters ahead 24-22.
The Panthers’ fightback hit a hurdle as the Cutters scored again in the 66th minute. Nabuli shrugged off Penrith defenders close to the line and slammed the ball down. Wallace’s conversion was unsuccessful and the Cutters led 28-22.
However the Panthers refused to back down and struck with an impressive try in the 73rd minute. Tom Eisenhuth chased down a grubber kick down in the Cutters in-goal area and athletically hauled the ball back for Lesoa to score his third try of the game. Katoa converted to level the scores.
The dramatic match-winning try came in the 77th minute and to delight of the Panthers faithful at Pepper Stadium, it went the way of the home side. A set play saw the ball moved left to Ben Foster, who threw a flat pass to Lesoa, who quickly flicked a pass to Tom Eisenhuth to dive over in the corner. Katoa iced the incredible comeback with a sideline conversion to make the final score 34-28.
FULL-TIME: 34-28 PANTHERS