The Panthers extended their unbeaten start to the Canterbury Cup season with a 26-24 win over St George Illawarra Dragons at Panthers Stadium on Saturday.
The Panthers were the better side for the majority of the contest, but the persistent Dragons refused to be put away and remained in the contest right up until the full-time siren.
The visitors clawed their way back from a 20-8 deficit to make it a two-point ball game in the final 5 minutes. However, the Panthers were valiant to hold off the fast-finishing Dragons and win their third-straight game to begin the season.
A lovely short ball by Caleb Aekins set up the Panthers’ opener in the 5th minute. The fullback put Matheson Johns into space, who found Brian To'o on his outside to give the Panthers a 4-0 lead.
Tristan Sailor seemingly cancelled out that effort when he picked up a dead ball and sliced through in the 10th minute, but the Dragons were penalised for an obstruction.
The Panthers capitalised on the reprieve to score their second, this time on the opposite wing. Paea Pua’s offload gave the Panthers a right-edge overlap, and Malakai Watene-Zelezniak finished off the move acrobatically. Jed Cartwright crept in the sideline conversion, making it 10-0 after 14 minutes.
Jai Field’s long passing game was a thorn in the Panthers’ side however, as the Dragons reduced the margin to two points by the 26-minute mark.
Lachlan Maranta was the beneficiary of two sizzling cut-out passes by the Field, but the five-eighth missed both conversions so the Panthers remained in front.
Watene-Zelezniak bagged his second try seven minutes out from halftime to give the Panthers some breathing space. He chased down Aekins’ clever kick to the corner and, despite interference from Tristan Sailor, managed to plant it down in the corner.
HALF-TIME: PANTHERS 14 – DRAGONS 8
Watene-Zelezniak looked bound for a hat-trick when Liam Coleman’s cut-out pass put Tyrone Phillips in a two-one-one, but Jonus Pearson rushed out of the line to defuse the situation.
It mattered little, as the Panthers scored moments later when Johns pounced from dummy half and linked up with Jarome Luai, who skipped past Sailor. Cartwright added the goal to push the Panthers ahead 20-8 after 48 minutes.
The Panthers were well on top and were primed to kill off the game as they set up camp on the Dragons’ goal-line in the 53rd minute. Instead, the Dragons scored two quickfire tries to turn the contest on its head.
First, Jonus Pearson took an intercept and went the distance despite an impressive chase from Brian Too, before Charly Runciman scored off Adam Clune’s short ball. Field converted both, making it 20-20 after 58 minutes.
Momentum was well in the Dragons’ favour, but then the Panthers added another twist.
The forwards, led by Nick Lui-Toso, guided the Panthers upfield where Luai, who spent time at hooker in the second half, went short to Paea Pua. The prop carried three defenders over the try line, and Luai’s goal put the Panthers ahead 26-20 with 15 minutes remaining.
The Dragons had seemingly equalised again in the 70th minute when Clune’s inside ball sent Sailor over, but the pass was ruled forward.
It would only delay the Dragons however, as Maranta’s third try with 5 minutes remaining gave Field a chance to level the scores from the sideline. His conversion struck the upright and missed, and the Panthers remained ahead by two.
Despite their best efforts, the Dragons were unable to nab a late winner, and the Panthers held on for victory.
FULL-TIME: PANTHERS 26 – DRAGONS 24