The Panthers have clinched a vitally important 24-16 victory over North Queensland Cowboys in a tense affair at Pepper Stadium.
Despite injuries to key personnel, the Cowboys were brave in defeat with the Panthers needing a late Nathan Cleary try to eventually put the visitors away and move in to sixth position on the NRL ladder.
A string of penalties put the hosts under early pressure allowing the Cowboys to eventually open their account in the 10th minute through Kane Linnett.
Javed Bowen managed to throw the ball back in field despite the efforts of Dallin Watene-Zelezniak to drag him out finding Linnett wide open for a 4-0 lead.
After having to defend wave after wave of Cowboys attack, the Panthers would turn the tables to hit the lead midway through the half thanks to Josh Mansour’s instinctive effort.
A cut-out pass from Matt Moylan fell to the winger who sniffed out a gap to racethrough and score underneath the crossbar, allowing Cleary a simple conversion for a 6-4 lead.
OAK PLUS GALLERY: See the best shots from Pepper Stadium
A fortunate penalty to the visitors was the catalyst for their response just shy of the half hour mark. Jake Granville’s deft kick back on the inside found his skipper Michael Morgan to run on to and reclaim the lead, before Ethan Lowe converted to make it 10-6.
Last tackle options were hurting the Panthers in attack but some ad lib play almost saw them draw level on the stroke of half-time. Moylan’s driven kick led to Dallin Watene-Zelezniak being put in space but the winger’s hands failed him with the try line in sight.
HALF-TIME: Penrith Panthers 6 – 10 North Queensland Cowboys
The second-half started in controversial fashion when a bizarre decision from the referee robbed the Panthers of a try and allowed the Cowboys to go up the other end and score for a 12-point turn around on the scoreboard.
Jason Taumololo was the beneficiary of the decision when he combined with John Asiata to charge through a gaping hole in the Panthers defence in the 46th minute for a 16-6 lead following Lowe’s simple conversion.
The Panthers weren’t to be denied in the 50th minute when the Bunker gave Nathan Cleary the green light after the halfback ran on to a grubber from Tyrone Peachey. He would convert his own try to bring the score back to 16-12.
A slice of fortune and an incredible last-ditch effort from Cleary saved the Panthers from going further behind moments after when the halfback managed to stop Coen Hess in his tracks and hold the ball up before he could ground it.
That moment would prove crucial on the hour mark when the Panthers went over through former Cowboy James Tamou who got the better of Taumololo close to the line. A straightforward conversion to Cleary edged the Panthers ahead 18-16.
HIGHLIGHTS: Relive all the tries and key moments here
It was almost a quick fire double for the hosts when Corey Harawira-Naera looked home and hosed to extend their lead if not for losing his footing painfully short of the line.
An excruciatingly nervy finale was eventually settled five minutes from time thanks to the youthful combination of Tyrone May and Cleary. The utility poked through the Cowboys defence and linked up with his halfback to push the Panthers out to an unassailable 24-16 lead after Cleary converted his own try.
FULL-TIME: Penrith Panthers 24 – 16 North Queensland Cowboys