The Panthers scored a late try to claim a 24-20 win in their trial game against the Bulldogs at Pepper Stadium.
Some enterprising play in the first set had the Panthers right on the attack after only two minutes but a forward pass to Ben Garcia brought it to an end.
The two sides traded soft handling errors in the opening period, with the warm conditions no excuse for the slippery hands which plagued both teams.
An error from Matt Moylan under the high ball gave the Bulldogs prime attacking possession and they opened the scoring in the 16th minute. Simple hands on the left edge found enough time and space for the Dogs’ high-profile recruit Will Hopoate to crash over. The conversion attempt from Kerrod Holland was unsuccessful and the Bulldogs led 6-0.
The visitors thought they had crossed for their second try as a fifth-tackle kick in the 20th minute took a fortuitous deflection and was scooped up by Matt Frawley. However the pass he then looped to his support out wide was deemed forward.
The Bulldogs didn’t have to wait much longer to extend their lead though. Moses Mbye broke through in the 25th minute, offloaded, then stayed alive in the play to throw the final pass for Holland to stroll over. Mbye couldn’t convert and the scoreboard read 8-0.
Next it was Josh Mansour to fumble a Bulldogs kick under no pressure. From the ensuing set, Michael Lichaa made it look too simple as he dummied and dived over to score a 29th minute Bulldogs try. This time Mbye was successful with the conversion the Panthers trailed 14-0.
The Panthers finally got on the scoreboard as James Segeyaro darted out of dummy half and sent Elijah Taylor over for a try beside the posts. Moylan slotted the conversion to make the score 14-6 with five minutes left before the break.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, the Panthers scored another try to put themselves back in the contest. Young playmaker Te Maire Martin cut clean through the line and showed some dazzling speed on a 40-metre sprint to score. Moylan again converted to cut the Dogs’ lead to two points.
HALFTIME – Bulldogs 14-12
The Panthers went on the attack right after the break and a well-timed ball from Martin hit Chris Smith perfectly to dive over from a few metres out. Corey Harawira-Naera’s attempted conversion was waved away but Penrith led 16-14 in the 43rd minute.
After the Bulldogs launched their restart out on the full, the Panthers took the opportunity to extend their lead further. Dallin Watene-Zelezniak showed agility and strength as he took a ball from Martin and powered his way over for the 45th minute try. Zach Dockar-Clay missed the conversion attempt but Penrith were ahead 20-14.
The errors under the high ball continued for the Panthers as Watene-Zelezniak spilled his first and gave the Bulldogs a repeat set. However some fast line speed in defence forced the Dogs to cough up possession under pressure.
Panthers coach Anthony Griffin wasn’t afraid to give some youngsters a run as the final quarter of the match beckoned. Tyrone May made a surprise appearance, after earlier playing for both the NYC and NSW Cup sides, while Nathan Cleary, Moses Leota, James Fisher-Harris and Harawira-Naera all got plenty of minutes.
Unfortunately the changes meant familiar combinations broke down and a succession of unforced handling errors crept back into the game. A number of promising Panthers attacks fell to pieces as the ball went to ground.
The Bulldogs made them pay in the 68th minute as Penrith winger Malakai Watene-Zelezniak completely misread a high ball, allowing Brad Abbey to clean up and score. Brad Keighran slotted the conversion to lock the game up at 20-all with ten minutes to play.
The Panthers needed something special. Enter Josh Hall - the AFL convert - to put on a sweet step, dive over in the corner and score a 78th-minute match-winner. Cleary missed the conversion but the final siren sounded.
FULLTIME - Panthers 24-20