The minor premiership ambitions of the Panthers Canterbury Cup side suffered a major blow in a 26-22 defeat against the Bulldogs at Bankwest Stadium on Saturday.
The result sees the Bulldogs leapfrog the Panthers at the top of the table, with the Rabbitohs still to play this weekend.
The Bulldogs were gifted the opening points of the game after only five minutes as Panthers five-eighth Matt Burton threw a loose pass which was swooped upon by Morgan Harper. The Bulldogs centre sprinted clear before offloading for winger Jayden Okunbor to crash over in the corner. The conversion was unsuccessful but the home side led 4-0.
The Panthers hit back in the 15th minute as winger Matheson Johns found some space on the left edge and offloaded for Billy Burns to score the try. Jed Cartwright knocked the conversion over from out wide and the Panthers led 6-4.
After the Panthers committed an error from the kick-off, the Bulldogs went ahead again as halfback Fa’amanu Brown stepped his way over the tryline. He converted his own try and the Bulldogs enjoyed a 10-6 lead.
Running the ball on the last tackle moments later, Burns thought he was over for his second try for the Panthers but was penalised for a double movement.
With three minutes until the break a late pass from Sam McKendry put fellow front-rower Spencer Leniu through the line. The 18-year-old crashed over for his third try in two games and Carwright’s conversion gave Panthers a 12-10 lead.
HALF-TIME – Panthers 12 – 10 Bulldogs
The Bulldogs responded early in the second half as some slick hands from backrower Matt Doorey put centre Connelly Lemuelu in the clear. The subsequent conversion was on target to give the home side a 16-12 lead.
They extended their lead in the 50th minute as Okunbor flew high over Matheson Johns to snatch a fifth-tackle bomb and score his second try.
The Panthers hit back as hooker Sione Katoa took matters into his own hands and powered over from dummy half. Carwright slotted the simple conversion to make the scoreboard read 20-18.
From their next set, the Panthers went the length of field to score. Cartwright found a miracle offload to put Malakai Watene-Zelezniak in open space. The winger chipped and the bounce of the ball took it into the hands of Burns to dive over. The attempted conversion was waved away but Panthers were ahead 22-20 with 20 minutes to play.
The lead changed again eight minutes later as Bulldogs fullback Toa Mata’afa ran it on the last tackle and shrugged off the attempted tackle of Pat Hollis. Brown was successful with the conversion attempt to put the Bulldogs in front 26-22.
The Panthers had some attacking raids late in the contest but errors from Burns and Stephen Crichton confirmed the final result.
FULL-TIME – Panthers 22 - 26 Bulldogs