The SG Ball Panthers fell to their first loss of the season, succumbing to a spirited Illawarra Steelers side 24-16 at BlueBet Stadium on Saturday.
The Panthers looked to extend their three-game winning streak but despite the efforts from star halfback Keagan Russell-Smith, the Steelers proved too strong.
The Steelers were first to trouble the scorers, spreading the ball across the field as fullback Benjamin Rumble cleverly drew in the Panthers defence before flicking a short ball to Jack Bostock to cross in the fifth minute.
Five-eighth Ryan Hodgson couldn’t convert the four-pointer.
With play relatively stagnant in the ten minutes that followed the Panthers were able to capitalise following a penalty in the 13th minute with Keagan-Russell Smith spreading the ball right to Aston Warwick who dived over to level the scores.
Russell-Smith added the extras to put the home side ahead by two.
Needing a response, the Steelers charged at the Panthers line with intent.
Navajo Doyle combined with Ashton Ward as the Steelers spread the ball right, finding winger Ethan Cliff who leaped over in the corner.
Hodgson’s conversion fell short, as the Steelers help an 8-6 lead.
With six minutes left of the half, a lovely cut-out ball from Russell-Smith put Panthers centre Jesse McLean in space, where he was able to dive through the Illawarra defence to score.
Russell-Smith’s conversion was waved away from as the Panthers took a two-point lead into the sheds.
HALF-TIME: PANTHERS 10 - STEELERS 8
Once more it was Russell-Smith creating opportunities for the Panthers, producing a one-on-one strip off the back of his own kick, climbing over Rumble to secure an extra four points for his team.
Converting his own try, the Panthers drew inspiration from their halfback to continue dominating possession.
John Sagaga’s effort was denied with the referee deeming the prop forward was held up over the line.
Making use of their possession, Illawarra were able to find space in attack with Rumble finding Bostock in support on the left side.
Hodgson’s kick fell just short of the sticks as the Steelers trailed 16-12.
Illawarra went back-to-back when Jacob Webster spun his way through the Panthers defence before diving over the line.
Kicking from in front, Hodgson put the Steelers ahead by two with ten minutes left of the game.
Prop forward Toby Couchman sealed the contest in the final minute of the game, crashing over between the posts. Bostock’s easy conversion cemented an eight-point victory for Illawarra.
FULL-TIME: STEELERS 24 - PANTHERS 16