The Canterbury Cup Panthers defied their inexperience but were ultimately defeated by St George-Illawarra Dragons 24-22 at WIN Stadium on Saturday.
It was a gallant effort by the under-strength Panthers, who led by ten points midway through the second half. However the Dragons lifted late to snatch the win, with the conversion following a 75th-minute try by Darren Nicholls proving the difference.
The result sees the Dragons take first place on the competition ladder from the Panthers.
Injuries, including one to Malakai Watene-Zelezniak in the warm-up, forced coach Guy Missio to name six players still eligible for Jersey Flegg, including four debutants: five-eighth Matt Burton, fullback Charlie Staines, and forwards Alex Myles and Terrell May.
Burton and Staines, both products of the Panthers Regional Academy Program, were outstanding on debut, and combined to set up a brilliant try by Stephen Crichton at the end of the first half.
The Dragons were opened the scoring inside three minutes. After Tristan Sailor scooped up an astray pass, Jai Field sliced through and touched down under the posts, handing the Dragons an early 6-0 lead.
Field looked set to slip away for a second in the 7th minute, but some last-ditch defence by Sam McKendry and Matt Burton shut down the play.
The Panthers were rewarded for their desperation in defence, marching up the other end to score three minutes later.
Matt Burton and Billy Burns combined to create an overlap, and Charlie Staines sent Stephen Crichton over out wide. Dean Blore piloted the sideline conversion over to level the scores.
The Dragons would regain the lead in the 16th minute after clever play by Steven Marsters. After Stephen Crichton did well to escape the in-goal, Marsters pinched the ball off him and strolled over to make it 12-6.
Just as they looked set to lay on another try and hit a comfortable lead, the Panthers levelled the wager in the blink of an eye, as Brayden McGrady took an intercept and dashed 95 metres.
Dean Blore landed another conversion from out wide to make it 12-all.
In the space of two minutes, both sides were denied tries by forward pass rulings, before a piece of magic by Burton and Staines saw the Panthers take the lead at halftime.
Burton rolled a grubber upfield for Staines, who sped through and scooped up the ball. The fullback then stepped outside and sent Crichton over for his second with a basketball pass, finishing off a brilliant piece of play.
Blore’s third conversion gave the Panthers a six-point cushion at the break.
HALF-TIME: PANTHERS 18 – DRAGONS 12
The Dragons blew two chances to hit back in the early stages of the second half, as Jason Saab and Josh Kerr both spilled the ball over the line within two minutes.
The Panthers were clinical with their chances and stretched their lead to 22-12 in the 45th minute, as Jed Cartwright drew in three defenders before offloading for Reed Izzard to stroll over.
McGrady could have had another intercept try in the 49th minute when he pounced on an Adam Clune cut-out pass, but he was unable to hang onto the football.
Entering the final 20 minutes, the Dragons reduced the margin to set up an exciting finish. They desperately kept the ball in a long-range effort finished off by a determined Jackson Ford, and the conversion by Sailor made it 22-18.
They very nearly equalised in the 63rd minute when Lachlan Timm muscled over, but the prop dropped the ball over the line.
With ten minutes remaining, Dean Blore lined up a penalty goal as the Panthers looked for some much-needed breathing room, but the halfback cruelly struck the upright and missed.
It proved to be a crucial miss, as the Dragons snatched the lead in the 75th minute. Former Panthers playmaker Darren Nicholls pierced through, and Sailor added the goal to edge the Red V ahead, 24-22.
The Panthers wasted their only attacking chance at the end of the contest, as the Dragons came away with a narrow win.
FULL-TIME: DRAGONS 24 – PANTHERS 22