The Penrith Panthers’ injury-ravaged season has ended with a brave 30-12 win over Newcastle Knights to avoid the dreaded wooden spoon.
Forced to name a line-up almost unrecognisable from the one which took the field at the start of 2015, coach Ivan Cleary and his patched-up troops threw everything they had at the Knights and finished the season in some style.
Sione Katoa and Chris Smith were named to make their NRL debuts at the expense of Jamie Soward and Bryce Cartwright. Dean Whare returned from injury in the centres, while Sika Manu dropped off the bench. David Simmons was handed the captaincy in his final game in the NRL.
Penrith’s Will Smith opened the scoring in the fifth minute as some slick hands saw him cut through a hole, then step inside fullback Jake Mamo for the try. Taking over the kicking duties in Soward’s absence, Smith slotted the conversion for a 6-0 lead.
The milestone man Simmons crashed over the tryline a couple of minutes later but Will Smith’s looping pass over the top was called forward.
In the 13th minute Tariq Sims put a shoulder charge on James Segeyaro as the hooker attempted an attacking grubber.
From the next set Simmons reached out spectacularly but the video referee confirmed the original on-field call that he grounded it short of the tryline.
With the Knights marching downfield, only some scrambling Panthers defence and cool-headed play from Will Smith at the back defused a dangerous Newcastle attack.
In the 20th minute the Knights were penalised for staying too long in the tackle on Isaah Yeo and Penrith elected to take the shot at goal. Will Smith knocked it over from right in front to extend the lead, 8-0.
Will Smith was in the middle of everything and in the 25th minute he made another incisive linebreak. However the Knights cover defence did enough to round him up, then drive Lewis Brown over the sideline with the ball.
Four minutes later the Knights hit back on the scoreboard as retiring forward Clint Newtown barged over from close range. Newcastle playmaker Tyrone Roberts kicked the conversion to make the score 8-6.
In the 34th minute Kurt Gidley tried an audacious chip and it looked like paying off as a backpedalling Api Koroisau slipped over. However the Knights couldn’t handle the bouncing ball cleanly and the Panthers escaped their tryline.
Roberts tried a similar play in the 37th minute and this time Mamo flew highest to claim the ball and plant it down next to the posts. Roberts then stepped up and slotted the conversion to give Newcastle a 12-8 lead.
The Panthers had the final attack of the first stanza but with the halftime siren about to sound, a desperate grubber was easily cleaned up by Mamo.
HALFTIME – Newcastle 12-8
After some nervous moments to open the second half, Penrith got the try they desperately needed as Whare cut back on a scything run to the tryline in the 46th minute. Will Smith knocked the conversion over for the Panthers to retake the lead 14-12.
Five minutes later debutant Chris Smith announced his arrival on the big stage as he took an intercept and streaked away on a 70 metre charge before being caught by Roberts. A quick play the ball allowed Koroisau to shift it to Tyrone Peachey who dived over the tryline in spectacular fashion. Smith was successful with the conversion to make the score 20-12.
From there the game began to descend into a scrappy exchange with both sides attempting to move the ball around without enough forward momentum. Despite the haphazard play, the Panthers continued to scramble well enough to hold out Newcastle’s attack.
A melee broke out with 15 minutes left in the contest after Whare was taken without the ball, and after much slapping, hugging and deliberation, the referees blew a penalty to Penrith.
Peachey was stepping up to the plate in the halves and in the 68th minute earned the Panthers a repeat set with a well-weighted grubber.
After a restart of the tackle count, some quick hands on the left edge from Peachey and Brown sent winger Josh Mansour over in the corner for a 70th minute try. Smith’s conversion attempt missed by some margin, leaving the score 24-12 with eight minutes to play.
The Knights attempted the short kick-off from the restart and Simmons intercepted the ball but couldn’t find the pace he needed as he sprinted away. It seemed that fairytale try to cap off his 200th and final game was just out of reach.
As Newcastle tossed the ball around late in the contest, it went to ground, and was swooped upon by Peachey who broke free and ran 40m to score his second try of the game. Simmons was given the conversion attempt and didn't miss, capping off the 30-12 victory.
FULLTIME - Panthers 30-12