A youthful Panthers outfit notched up a much-needed 16-12 Intrust Super Premiership victory over the Bulldogs at Belmore Oval on Friday night.
The Panthers were down 6-0 at the break after a messy opening half, but came good in the second stanza as they cut the errors out of their game.
Panthers coach Steve Georgallis took the opportunity to blood some of the brightest young talent coming through the Penrith ranks. Playmaker Nathan Cleary, fullback Dylan Edwards and lock Tyrone May received a late call-up from the club’s high-flying NYC side. The Bulldogs sprung a surprise of their own with NRL stalwart Will Hopoate named at fullback.
Cleary looked destined for the tryline after only seven minutes but he was rounded up with a last-ditch tackle from the Bulldogs.
The Dogs were making big metres through the forwards and dominating field position early. On the back of repeat sets, playmaker Dane Chisholm spotted space out wide and launched a perfect chip kick for winger Brad Abbey to dive over in the corner in the 11th minute. Abbey slotted the conversion for a 6-0 lead.
Panthers centre Andrew Heffernan left the contest not long after with a hamstring issue, forcing Will Smith out wide and Zach Dockar-Clay off the bench into the halves.
A clean break from Smith in the 16th minute came to nought as Sitaleki Akauola spilled the ball back on the inside. Next it was Waqa Blake who broke clear but was somehow denied with the tryline seemingly at his mercy.
The Panthers only had themselves to blame as loose hands continued to undermine their attack and soft penalties continually gifted the Dogs the best field position.
Five minutes before the break Cleary earned the Panthers a repeat set with a nicely-timed grubber but more dropped ball, this time from Paea Pua, meant the chance was soon gone.
It was only some brave last-ditch defence that meant the Panthers were still in the contest at halftime.
HALFTIME – Bulldogs 6-0
Cleary opened the second half in positive fashion with a well-weighted kick to the in-goal, run down by Waqa Blake to earn the drop-out. Cleary then popped up on the next set to provide a looping pass over the top for George Jennings to claim and score. Josh Hall’s attempted conversion was waved away, leaving the score 6-4.
The Panthers struck again almost immediately, albeit in strange circumstances. A rampaging Blake broke the line but his pass back on the inside hit the turf. The defence stopped, believing there had been a knock-on, and Corey Harawira-Naera swooped to score as every other player looked on. Hall’s conversion made it 10-6 in the 50th minute.
Smith was starting to spot space out wide and made the most of it with a beautiful kick through the line in the 59th minute. The repeat set only produced a Panthers knock on but the visitors were starting to look the better side.
They turned it into more points in the 65th minute as Smith showed great skill with a step and pass to create the opportunity out wide for Jennings. The winger didn’t disappoint and dived over for his second of the night. Hall nailed the sideline conversion for a 16-6 lead.
Chase Stanley put the Bulldogs back in it with ten minutes left in the game as the referee failed to call the final pass forward. The contentious try was converted to make it 16-12.
There were plenty of nervous moments in the final minutes but, due in part to the beautiful kicking game of Cleary, the Panthers held on and claimed the much-needed victory.
FULLTIME – Panthers 16-12