The NYC Panthers were hunted down by a determined Canberra Raiders outfit 36-34 at GIO Stadium on Saturday.
Penrith enjoyed a ten-point lead at halftime but injuries to Soni Luke and Jack Nelson disrupted their defensive organisation, and Canberra stole the result with the final play of the game.
The Panthers were dealt a blow before kick-off with captain Oliver Clark withdrawn due to an ankle injury. His place in the starting side was taken by Dylan Fuad and Jack Hetherington was a late inclusion on the bench to make his Panthers debut.
The Raiders had the first opportunity of the game in the 5th minute as winger Thomas Cronan dived for the corner. However his Panthers opposite Ratu Tuisese did just enough to force him over the sideline as he attempted to plant the ball.
It was instead Tuisese himself who opened the scoring after Rob Jennings tossed him an audacious one-handed offload in the 7th minute. Nathan Cleary’s attempted conversion was waved away but the Panthers led 4-0.
Canberra smashed their kick-off out on the full and Penrith took full advantage with another try in the 10th minute. This time it was Cleary who took the line on, then found a smart offload for Corey Waddell to crash over beside the posts. The 18-year-old playmaker slotted the conversion to make the score 10-0.
The Panthers only had themselves to blame as Canberra hit back in the 15th minute. An attempted grubber went nowhere and Raiders captain Lachlan Croker scooped up the loose ball and ran 80 metres untouched to score. The conversion was successful for a 10-6 scoreline.
The flood of early points continued as an incisive Robert Jennings break eventually saw the ball end up in the hands of Fuimanu Enese. Making the most of some soft defence, the winger strolled through a hole and dived over for a 19th minute try. Cleary’s conversion re-established the ten-point buffer.
In the 29th minute Canberra winger Jack Hickson timed a leap over Enese to gather a cross-field kick and score. Zac Woolford was successful with the conversion to make the score 16-12.
It was the Panthers who would have the final say of the first half as a well-weighted Cleary grubber was fumbled by the Canberra defence. Jennings found himself in the right place at the right time and gratefully snapped up the loose ball for a 37th minute try. The successful conversion pushed the score out to 22-12.
HALFTIME – Panthers 22-12
The second stanza opened with an all-in scuffle after Canberra were penalised for a high tackle. Despite the dramatics, no punches were thrown and when the two sides were finally separated, the original penalty stood.
The altercation seemed to fire up the Raiders, who first drove Jennings into touch and then followed up with a 50th minute try to Jack Williams. The backrower strolled through a yawning gap to score, with the conversion reducing Penrith’s lead to just four points.
Canberra were in again from their next set of six as centre Nick Cotric made a break on the outside and found Kalani Going in support to score beneath the posts. Woolford’s conversion put the Raiders ahead 24-22.
Centre Jack Nelson restored the Panthers lead in the 59th minute as he timed his leap perfectly under a Cleary bomb and scored to the left of the uprights. Cleary’s accurate conversion made the score 28-24.
A booming 40/20 from Canberra in the 63rd minute put them back on the attack and it wasn’t long before they crossed for a try. Seconds after Panthers hooker Soni Luke was assisted from the field with an arm injury, Sione Afemui dived over from dummy half. With 14 minutes to play, the successful conversion saw the Raiders lead 30-28.
When the Panthers hit back in the 72nd minute, it looked so simple. A strong run from Cowen Epere had the defence on the back foot and some quick hands put Jennings one-on-one with his defender. A step on the inside was all it took for the centre to dive over from close range. Cleary’s conversion made the score 34-30.
With three minutes to play Nelson made what looked like a match-sealing run down the left sideline but when he was eventually rounded up, with hands pinned, the tackle drove him into the ground head first. The Panthers centre exited the game on a stretcher.
However with 30 seconds to go in the game Canberra stole the result with a try to Croker under the posts. The conversion was knocked over and the Panthers left wondering what could have been.
FULLTIME – Canberra 36-34