A knee injury to Nathan Cleary has further soured a disappointing 20-18 defeat for the Panthers against the Bulldogs at ANZ Stadium on Friday.
The Panthers playmaker looked off the pace in the first half and didn't return after the break, having succumbed to what is reported to be a medial ligament injury.
A run of early penalties put the Bulldogs on the attack and a fifth-tackle kick to Brett Morris saw him held up over the line. However the Panthers weren’t so lucky only moments later as Moses Mbye cut through the line to score out wide. The fullback couldn’t convert his try but the Dogs led 4-0 after six minutes.
A period of sustained Panthers attack ended in another Bulldogs try in the 11th minute as Nathan Cleary threw an intercept to Josh Morris, who ran 90m to score under the posts. The simple conversion from Mbye put the Dogs ahead 10-0.
In the 18th minute the Bulldogs extended their lead further as a grubber fortuitously ended in the hands of Will Hopoate. Mbye’s attempted conversion sailed wide but the home side led 14-0.
The Panthers finally responded in the 25th minute as simple hands to the left edge found the Bulldogs short on defenders. Isaah Yeo broke clear before finding James Maloney back on the inside to score his first try in Panthers colours. Cleary’s conversion made the score 14-6.
It was almost a repeat of the home side’s first try, albeit without the obstruction in the lead-up, as Mbye dived over with eight minutes left before the break. This time he slotted the conversion to put the Bulldogs ahead 20-6.
However it wasn’t long before the Panthers hit back as Viliame Kikau found an offload to put Dylan Edwards through the line and over in the corner. Cleary nailed the sideline conversion and the Bulldogs lead was again reduced to eight points, three minutes before halftime.
HALFTIME – Panthers 12-20 Bulldogs
The Panthers were dealt a huge blow as Cleary didn't return for the second half, having suffered an injury to his left knee in the first stanza.
Tyrone Peachey shifted into the halves alongside Maloney but the Panthers attacking play began to suffer without Cleary's calming influence.
It was probably best summed up as Waqa Blake danced his way across the field with 22 minutes left in the contest, only for it to end in an aimless dropped ball.
Another promising attack for the Panthers seven minutes later ended with a Maloney grubber trickling harmlessly out the back of the in-goal.
Waqa Blake was held up in the right corner in the 73rd minute, but from the next play a miraculous put-down from Josh Mansour in the opposite corner suddenly gave the Panthers a ray of hope. Maloney slotted the conversion from the sideline and the scoreboard read 20-18 to the Bulldogs.
An opportunity for an incredible match-winner slipped through the grasp of the Panthers with two minutes left in the contest, and the home side held on.
FULLTIME - Panthers 18-20 Bulldogs