The young Panthers have proven their mettle with a tough 24-14 win over Cronulla Sharks at Southern Cross Group Stadium on Sunday.
The Sharks led by four points with 15 minutes to play but despite losing hooker Wayde Egan to an arm injury, the Panthers rallied to claim the victory.
Panthers NYC coach Cam Ciraldo made a late change with Jack Hetherington dropping off the extended bench in favour of retaining Jack Nelson.
In the 4th minute strong runs from Oliver Clark and Cowen Epere put the Panthers on the front foot. With the Cronulla defence scrambling to adjust, centre Braidon Burns ran a smart line and reached out to score. Nathan Cleary knocked the conversion over for a 6-0 lead.
The Sharks hit back five minutes later as lock Jayden McDonogh took a ball at close range and crashed over. The successful conversion from Bessi Aufaga-Toomaga locked the scores up at 6-6.
The referee was giving the home side plenty of joy, repeatedly penalising the Panthers for perceived infringements in the play-the-ball and forcing them to defend consecutive sets.
Gifted field position, Cronulla took advantage in the 17th minute as some smooth hands put winger Sione Katoa over in the corner. The attempted conversion was waved away but the Sharks were ahead 10-6.
Panthers fullback Dylan Edwards looked to have equalised for the visitors not long after but lost possession as he went to ground the ball.
In the 29th minute Panthers winger Ratu Tuisese added another spectacular finish to his highlights reel for the season. Running on the last tackle, an offload from Christian Crichton saw the ball spread to the left edge for the try. Cleary was unable to convert, leaving the score at 10-10.
There was more than a hint of obstruction as the Sharks scored in the 35th minute through Billy Magoulias. A play-the-ball on the last tackle and short pass, combined with a player standing in the line, was enough to see the Cronulla forward crash over. The attempted conversion hit the upright and the score remained 14-10.
It got worse for the Panthers two minutes before halftime as hooker Wayde Egan departed the game with what appeared to be a serious arm injury, followed by Reed Izzard taken off with concussion.
HALFTIME – Sharks 14-10
With Egan gone for the game, the Panthers pushed Rob Jennings back to fullback and Edwards into dummy half as they returned after the break.
The reshuffle seemed to dent their attack and despite a number of promising opportunities early in the second half, slippery hands proved their undoing.
Izzard soon passed his concussion test and re-entered the fray, taking over duties at dummy half and allowing Edwards to return to the back.
The Panthers were showing steel and hustle in defence but at the other end of the field, their fifth tackle options were failing to produce repeat sets, let alone points.
With 15 minutes left in the contest a Cleary grubber finally earned the drop-out the Panthers had been searching for. Given the ball with some space to play with, Edwards then showed the speed and strength which has defined his season so far to crash over for the crucial try. Cleary nailed the pressure conversion to give the Panthers a 16-14 lead.
The try seemed to knock the wind out of Cronulla and the Panthers took hold of the game with some accurate kicking to the corners. Having gained possession in the Sharks half, simple hands out to the left edge found Tuisese to dive over for his second try of the game. Cleary couldn’t convert but the Panthers led 20-14 with five minutes to play.
From there the Sharks fell away and Edwards grabbed his second try to ice an impressive victory.
FULLTIME - Panthers 24-14