The Panthers suffered a heartbreaking 24-20 loss to Cronulla Sharks at PointsBet Stadium on Thursday.
The Panthers led 20-6 with 19 minutes remaining before a late Sharks rally, completed by Josh Dugan in the 75th minute, sunk the visitors.
Despite the result, the Panthers’ goal-line defence was commendable. Having had just 40% possession, the Panthers had no right to be in the contest, but their valiant defensive efforts forced the Sharks to win it late.
All round, it was a much-improved team effort, but the Sharks’ desire late on ultimately proved the difference.
Matt Prior came close in the 4th minute, but Dallin Watene-Zelezniak put his body on the line in a try-saver and the Panthers went on to score first.
Tim Grant crossed for the opening try in his first Panthers appearance since 2014, running a good line to latch onto James Maloney’s clever pass. Nathan Cleary converted to give the Panthers a 6-0 lead after 11 minutes.
Cleary was the beneficiary of another piece of Maloney magic in the 15th minute, jumping on a brilliant grubber by his five-eighth and then converting to double the Panthers’ lead.
He added a penalty goal shortly after, giving the Panthers a 14-0 advantage.
After Penrith’s try-scoring raid, the majority of the first half was dominated by Cronulla. The Panthers were trapped in their own end and had to defend their line four times in quick succession, but a 40/20 by Maloney in the 37th minute relieved the pressure.
From there, Josh Mansour appeared to score off of Cleary’s cut-out pass. However, an obstruction denied the Panthers what would have been a crucial try.
A barnstorming Braden Uele put the Panthers on the backfoot in the closing stages, but Penrith held on to take a 14-point lead to the sheds.
HALF-TIME: PANTHERS 14 – SHARKS 0
Maloney’s presence did not waver in the second half, the ex-Shark flooring debutant Will Kennedy on a kick return in the 43rd minute.
After the Sharks received a penalty for an off-the-ball incident, Briton Nikora crashed over in the 46th minute, only to drop the ball at the line.
It only delayed the Sharks however. In the 49th minute, Josh Dugan made room for Bronson Xerri to dash away, and Chad Townsend’s goal closed the gap to eight points.
The Panthers’ first opportunity of the second half did not come until the 59th minute, and they took full advantage.
Nathan Cleary caught Josh Morris flying out of the line and went long to Waqa Blake, who weaved through the backpedalling defence to touch down. Cleary’s gutsy conversion from out wide put the Panthers in a comfortable position, 20-6 with 19 minutes remaining.
However, the Sharks quickly hit back quickly with a penalty try when Malakai Watene-Zelezniak tackled Townsend without the ball. Townsend added the extras, cutting the deficit to eight points again.
The Sharks almost had another in the 69th minute when Xerri turned it in for Dugan, but Reagan Campbell-Gillard dislodged the ball at the line.
It meant the Sharks retained possession however, and they eventually cracked the Panthers’ desperate goal line defence when Andrew Fifita sliced through. Townsend converted again, making it 20-18 with 7 minutes to play and all the momentum in Cronulla’s favour.
The Sharks completed their comeback with 5 minutes to play when a backline shift culminated in Dugan going over for the winner, condemning the Panthers to a disappointing defeat.
FULL-TIME: SHARKS 24 – PANTHERS 20