The Panthers looked sharp as they posted a 16-6 victory over Parramatta Eels in a Battle of the West trial match at Panthers Stadium on Saturday night.
While it was not reflected on the scoreboard, the Panthers were utterly dominant on either side of the football and always had the Eels at arm’s length, despite a mini comeback by the visitors. Excellent in both attack and defence, it was a Panthers performance that should give fans plenty to be excited for in 2021.
Jarome Luai scored a dazzling solo try to put the Panthers ahead late in the first half, before Nathan Cleary applied the finishing touch to a brilliant run by Api Koroisau early in the second stanza. Young outside back Taylan May then put the icing on the cake in the latter stages.
The result completed a clean sweep of Saturday’s Battle of the West triple-header, after the Panthers NSW Cup and Jersey Flegg sides also recorded comfortable wins over the Eels.
Coach Ivan Cleary had the opportunity to trial some new systems and players in front of an outstanding home crowd, with J’maine Hopgood’s performance a highlight of the second half.
Brian To’o lined up on the left wing for the Panthers, while Charlie Staines played on the right flank outside Paul Momirovski and Kurt Capewell.
The Panthers new-look right edge received plenty of attention from the Eels attack, but they were certainly up to the task. Ryan Matterson, twice, and Maika Sivo found themselves in excellent scoring positions at different stages, but the Panthers wide men dealt with each situation quite impressively.
A 40/20 by newly appointed co-captain Nathan Cleary put the Panthers within striking range during the first half, although nothing came of the opportunity.
Match Highlights: Panthers v Eels
The Panthers were having no issue rolling upfield and into attacking positions, but the killer instinct was lacking – as is to be expected in the team’s first and only pre-season hit out.
One of the best opportunities came when Viliame Kikau bulldozed his way to the try line, but he was cut down centimetres of scoring.
Dylan Edwards debuted a new string he has added to his bow over the off-season, sending Charlie Staines over the line with a pinpoint tip-on. Cruelly and controversially, referee Ashley Klein ruled it a forward pass.
But through a piece of individual brilliance, the Panthers finally found a breakthrough.
Jarome Luai celebrated his recent Panthers contract extension with a magnificent solo effort to score the opening try in the 34th minute, as he put on a pair of ankle-breaking sidesteps which took him over the line.
Cleary converted, handing the Panthers a six-point lead at the break.
HALF-TIME: PANTHERS 6 – EELS 0
The Panthers carried their momentum into the second half, adding another try to the board with their first possession after the interval.
40 metres from the try line with nothing on, Api Koroisau darted out of dummy half and wove his way into the backfield before he found Nathan Cleary pushing up in support, and the halfback dashed away to score.
Cleary added the extras, pushing the Panthers ahead 12-0 after 42 minutes.
Uncapped forward J’maine Hopgood did not look out of place in the NRL side, as he made numerous strong charges and nearly assisted a try for Koroisau early in the second half.
An Eels attack eventuated to nothing midway through the second half, as the Panthers defended well to save a try before Waqa Blake fumbled the ball under pressure from Kurt Capewell.
The Panthers looked to have scored a stunning third try in the 58th minute when Kikau made a big break and Cleary flung a pass wide for Brian To’o to dot down, but the halfback’s ball was called forward.
Coach Ivan Cleary begun rotating his squad around the hour mark, as the likes of Cleary, Luai, Kikau and Koroisau were withdrawn while the likes of Matt Burton, Jaeman Salmon, Billy Burns and Mitch Kenny entered.
The Eels were lucky to cut into the Panthers’ lead in the 63rd minute, as a bomb spilled by Dylan Edwards sat up for Tom Opacic to score the easiest of tries. The conversion by Jordan Rankin made it 12-6.
Parramatta threatened to equalise with 10 minutes remaining as Haze Dunster tracked down a cross-field bomb, but he was unable to hang onto the ball.
Another kick that was not cleaned up threatened the Panthers’ lead late on, but young prop Lindsay Smith managed to pounce on the ball and keep the Panthers in front heading into the closing stages.
The Panthers landed the killer blow in the 78th minute, as a shift to the left edge and a cut-out pass by Matt Burton ended with young Taylan May diving over in the corner.
Burton’s sideline conversion was unsuccessful, but it mattered little as the Panthers came away with victory to top off a promising pre-season hit out.
The Panthers’ 2021 NRL campaign kicks off in two weeks time when they host North Queensland Cowboys at Panthers Stadium.
FULL-TIME: PANTHERS 16 – EELS 6