The Jersey Flegg Panthers opened their season with a tense but satisfying 26-18 victory over the Eels at Panthers Stadium on Sunday.
The home side watched a 12-point lead evaporate in the second half, before scoring the match-winning try with six minutes left in the contest.
The Eels forced an early dropout and gave the Panthers a 2nd-minute scare when Michael Cheer dived over in the corner. However the Panthers were given a reprieve as the winger stepped into touch before grounding the ball.
A penalty allowed the Panthers to march upfield and open the scoring in the 5th minute, with centre Shannon Harris plucking a cross-field bomb by halfback Isaac Thompson out of the air to score. Thompson added the extras, taking the Panthers out to an early 6-0 lead.
With the Eels back-pedalling after Panthers winger Justin Jones was mowed down just short of the try line, Thompson booted cross-field to an unmarked Zac Ryan, and the centre planted the ball down out wide to extend the lead. Thompson’s conversion attempt waved wide, with the score remaining 10-0 after 22 minutes.
After the Panthers were forced to defend their line for an extended period, the Eels finally broke through and opened the scoring in the 30th minute as halfback Dylan Brown poked his nose through to score. He then added the extras to narrow the margin to four points.
Thompson continued to terrorise the Eels with his kicking game, forcing a knock on by Cheer and handing the Panthers possession in the Parramatta red zone where winger Brian Too latched onto an offload by Ryan and muscled his way to the try line. Thompson’s conversion sailed away as the half-time siren sounded, with the Panthers taking a 14-6 lead to the break.
HALF-TIME: PANTHERS 14-6 EELS
The Panthers punished the Eels for a number of handling errors in the early stages of the second half, with second rower J’maine Hopgood sidestepping and fending his way through Parramatta’s staggered goal line defence to score. Thompson’s missed conversion attempt saw the score remain 18-6 after 41 minutes.
Dylan Brown caught the Panthers back three out of position in the 45th minute, sending a powerful grubber downfield with winger Taufua Afu chasing through, however Panthers fullback Daine Laurie cleaned up the football to maintain the hosts' 12-point margin.
Poor ball handling by the Panthers allowed the Eels to march upfield where Michael Cheer again came close to scoring in the corner at the end of a slick backline movement in the 50th minute, but was denied by the Panthers scrambling edge defence.
The Eels would eventually narrow the margin in the 54th minute however, with prop Sean Keppie burrowing his way over the try line. Brown converted from in front, taking the Eels to within six points of the Panthers.
Riding a wave of momentum, the Eels returned to the Panthers red zone in the 58th minute and struck again as fullback Haze Dunster broke through the Panthers goal line defence out wide. Brown sliced the conversion from out wide to lock the scores at 18-all.
After forcing an error by the Eels deep inside their own half, the Panthers made the most of one of their first attacking opportunities of the second half to hit the lead with six minutes remaining, with Thompson picking up the scraps up a Fearnley grubber to the in goal to score. Thompson converted from in front, stretching the lead to six points.
The Eels searched desperately for a late try, however the Panthers defence held firm and Thompson slotted a penalty goal after the fulltime siren to hand the Panthers an eight-point win.
FULL-TIME: PANTHERS 26-18 EELS