The title aspirations of the Panthers Jersey Flegg side took a major hit with a tight 28-26 defeat to Newcastle Knights at Panthers Stadium on Saturday.
Knights halfback Phoenix Crossland's cut-out pass gave Justin Worley a try-scoring opportunity in the 4th minute, but his opposite number Ethan McPherson rushed across to barrel the winger into touch.
There was no denying the Knights in the 10th minute however, as prop Henry Siriah-Fuimaono burrowed through the goal line defence for the opening try. Kurtis Dark converted to push the Knights ahead 6-0.
The Panthers responded in the 16th minute when a slick backline movement culminated in winger Marlon Ritchie touching down in the corner, but Brendan Hands' conversion attempt fell short under the weight of a heavy wind.
When a towering bomb was allowed to hit the deck, the Knights regained possession and Benjamin Talty broke through the staggered defence to plant down the football. Dark's goal extended the lead to 12-4 after 23 minutes.
The Panthers came up trumps from another backline play in the 26th minute, shifting to Brian Too who drew in the defence and sent Marlon Ritchie over the stripe. Hands nailed the conversion attempt from the touchline and narrowed the margin to two points.
The seesawing nature of the match continued in the 31st minute as Knights centre Heath Gibbs latched onto a short ball by Dirk and crossed the line. Dirk failed to add the extras, and the margin remained six points heading into the sheds.
HALF-TIME: PANTHERS 10-16 KNIGHTS
The Knights got off to a flying start to the second stanza when Talty broke into the backfield and found fullback Tex Hoy in support. Dark's goal stretched the lead to 22-10 after 38 minutes.
A poor last-tackle option resulted in a surprise Panthers try in the 46th minute, as Tex Hoy's in-goal offload was pounced on by an opportunistic Stephen Crichton. The wind again carried Hands' conversion attempt wide, and the eight-point deficit remained.
However, the Knights again widened the gap in the 49th minute when Hoy poked his nose through the line and offloaded to Worley, who streaked away to score. Dark's goal attempt was on target, creating a 28-14 score line.
With 12 minutes remaining, Daine Laurie gave the Panthers a glimmer of hope when he stepped infield from a backline play and blitzed through a gap in the goal line defence. Hands landed the conversion to make it an eight-point ball game.
Knights five-eighth Nash Nirch looked to extinguish that hope when he sent a wide ball to unmarked winger Elijah Rasiga in the 62nd minute, but Ethan McPherson ushered him into touch to keep the Panthers in the contest.
The Panthers began rolling through the middle-third, and Fearnley punished the backpedalling Knights with a witty dart from dummy half that saw him go over. Hands knocked over the goal to narrow the margin to two points with 3 minutes to spare.
Daine Laurie forced a dropout to give the Panthers one final roll of the dice in the dying moments of play, but the Knights held on for a two-point win.
FULL-TIME: PANTHERS 26-28 KNIGHTS