The NSW Cup Panthers came from behind to defeat South Sydney Rabbitohs 36-26 in an entertaining season opener at Panthers Stadium on Saturday.
The Panthers led 18-0 after just 20 minutes, before being run down by South Sydney on the back of a sin-binning and an eight-point try. The home side showed great composure to then stage a comeback of their own, as tries to Billy Burns, Brent Naden and Taylan May saw the Panthers prevail by ten points.
The trio were joined on the scoresheet by Scott Sorensen, Matt Burton and Izack Tago.
The Panthers got off to a blistering start, as they scored three tries inside 20 minutes to skip out to a comfortable 18-point lead.
Scott Sorensen marked his first appearance in Panthers colours with a try, as he showed great alertness to dive on a cross-field bomb by Matt Burton which was spilled by South Sydney.
Burton continued to cause problems for the visitors, scoring one for himself in the 15th minute. The five-eighth sidestepped his way through some sluggish goal-line defence and planted it down for the Panthers’ second try.
Three minutes later, the Panthers’ red-hot start continued as Izack Tago slipped away from South Sydney’s edge defence and then brushed off Rabbitohs fullback CJ Mundine to score.
Halfback Kurt Falls converted all three tries, making it a comfortable 18-point advantage.
The Panthers were in cruise control, until a dramatic sin bin and an eight-point try opened the door for South Sydney.
After Jaxson Paulo dived in the corner for the Rabbitohs’ first try in the 29th minute, an fight broke out in the corner of the field. Brent Naden was ruled to have made late contact with the try-scorer, and the referee sent him to the sin bin while awarding an eight-point try.
Rabbitohs halfback Dean Hawkins landed both conversions, narrowing the gap to ten points.
With the Panthers down to twelve men, the Rabbitohs quickly landed another blow. Five-eighth Troy Dargan rolled an inch-perfect kick to the in-goal for Jacob Gagai to pounce, and another Hawkins goal made it 18-14.
The Rabbitohs pushed for another try to take a shock lead at the end of the first half, before a big tackle by Izack Tago forced a knock on in a big let-off for the Panthers.
HALF-TIME: PANTHERS 18 – RABBITOHS 14
South Sydney carried their momentum into the second stanza and threatened to score an equalising try on numerous occasions.
An intercepted Matt Burton pass sent James Tautaiolefua on his way to the try line, but Brent Naden led a desperate chase to reel him in and eliminate the danger.
Rob Jennings and Jaeman Salmon then combined in a terrific defensive effort, barrelling experienced Rabbitohs centre Tautau Moga into touch.
But the Panthers could only hold on for so long, as the Rabbitohs snatched a pair of fortunate, back-to-back tries to take a healthy lead.
Within five minutes of each other, Troy Dargan and Josh Cook each scored tries from their own ricocheted kicks to the in-goal, and Hawkins converted both to put the Rabbitohs up 26-18 with 25 minutes remaining.
Having been run down themselves, the Panthers then embarked on their own comeback mission.
Playmaker Brendan Hands provided some much-needed spark from the bench, as he attracted several defenders 20 metres out from the line. He then put an inside ball on the chest of Billy Burns, who sliced through and used his strength to get to the try line.
Kurt Falls added the extras, narrowing the margin to two points heading into the final 20 minutes.
The Rabbitohs starved Penrith of any genuine possession for a lengthy period, until a powerful surge by Izack Tago put the Panthers on the path to a go-ahead try.
On the last tackle, Matt Burton drifted from out wide back infield where quick hands by Lindsay Smith and Billy Burns teed up Brent Naden to stroll over the line and level the scores.
Falls’ conversion edged the Panthers back ahead by 30-26 with 10 minutes to play.
Looking to snag a late try, South Sydney kicked a 20/40, but the Panthers managed to force an error and eliminate the danger.
The Panthers then sealed the deal in the dying seconds, as Izack Tago sent Taylan May over in the corner. Kurt Falls then converted from the sideline, putting the icing on a 10-point win by the Panthers.
FULL-TIME: PANTHERS 36 – RABBITOHS 26