Penrith Panthers face a final round showdown to dodge the wooden spoon after capitulating to a 34-18 loss to Canberra Raiders at GIO Stadium on Monday.
In a horror first half, the Panthers conceded four tries and lost playmaker Jamie Soward to concussion after he copped a contentious shoulder from Raiders fullback Jack Wighton.
They never recovered from the setback and will now face Newcastle Knights at Pepper Stadium on Saturday, with the beaten side likely to finish bottom of the table in 2015.
In a rare occurrence for the injury-ravaged Panthers this season, coach Ivan Cleary was able to begin the match in Canberra with the same side he named earlier in the week.
Early attacking possession for Penrith came to nothing as risky offloads sent them scrambling backwards and eventually resulted in a rushed bomb and turnover. It was just the kind of haphazard play which Cleary said his side would avoid in the build-up to the game.
It was all too easy for the Raiders at the other end, however, as halfback Sam Williams strolled through some lacklustre Panthers defence for an 8th minute try. Jarrod Croker’s attempted conversion was waved away but the home side led 4-0.
Canberra went end-to-end to extend their advantage in the 15th minute as Williams broke down an open short side. He found winger Edrick Lee, who managed to draw the attention of Waqa Blake and Jamie Soward, before putting Croker over for the try. The Canberra skipper converted from in front to make it 10-0.
The Panthers were being out-enthused and outmuscled and the Raiders made it count in the 21st minute. Penrith’s right edge defence was found short and Jarrad Kennedy crashed over from close range. Croker made no mistake with the conversion and the home side led 16-0.
After a long period of consideration, the video referee somehow saw enough evidence to rule Shaun Fensom grounded the ball for a 27th minute try. Croker knocked over the conversion and the home side was out to a 22-0 lead.
The Panthers hit back as James Segeyaro scooted out of dummy half on the fifth tackle, caught the Raiders defence napping and touched down. Soward kicked the conversion from directly in front to make the score 22-6 with seven minutes left in the half.
Some enterprising play almost put Penrith in again soon after but a last-ditch tackle from a retreating Croker managed to save the day for Canberra.
It was a similar story at the other end in the 38th minute as David Shillington, playing his final home game for the Raiders, dived over for what looked sure to be his fairytale try, only to be held up by some desperate Panthers defence.
The half went from bad to worse for the Panthers in the final minute before the break as Soward copped a Wighton shoulder to the head and was assisted from the field. Incredibly the referees didn’t find a penalty in the collision despite the Penrith playmaker being heavily concussed by the impact.
HALFTIME – Raiders 22-6
The Panthers started the second half in positive fashion, with Bryce Cartwright filling in for Soward in the halves, but basic handling errors cruelled their chances of another try.
Canberra punished the mistakes by marching downfield and almost extending their lead in the 48th minute. However the video referee ruled Raiders winger Edrick Lee to have knocked on from a bomb before Kennedy grounded the ball.
The Raiders suffered a major injury blow of their own ten minutes in the second half as Blake Austin was led from the field with a right shoulder issue.
With the key playmakers out of the game, the contest descended into a scrappy affair as the attack of both sides lost direction and punch.
When a penalty gifted the Panthers attacking possession in the 60th minute, Segeyaro forced the pass and Sika Manu put it down to spoil the opportunity.
Penrith paid the price a minute later as Canberra earned a penalty, then Kurt Baptiste bumped out of multiple attempted tackles on a determined charge to score. It was duly converted to make the score 28-6.
The Panthers had their second try of the game as some slick hands on the left edge sent Lewis Brown over to score in the 65th minute. Api Koroisau’s sideline conversion just got the job done to make it 28-12.
Penrith were throwing everything at the Raiders but it came to nothing as Croker took an intercept and sprinted away. From the next play, Sisa Waqa found a gaping hole right up the middle of the retreating Panthers defence and scored beneath the posts. Croker slotted the conversion for a 34-12 scoreline.
There was one more moment of joy to come for the Panthers, though, as Will Smith sliced through and ran around Wighton on a 50 metre charge for a 76th minute try. Koroisau converted to add some respectability to the scoreboard – 34-18.
FULLTIME – Raiders 34-18