Penrith Panthers have suffered an agonising 32-18 loss to the Newcastle Knights in the final round of the SG Ball Cup regular season at Maitland Sports Ground on Saturday.
The Knights struck first off the back of a penalty for a ruck infringement, with centre Ethan Ferguson running around the Panthers defensive line to put the ball down in the corner. He couldn’t convert his own try from touch, but the home side had a four-point advantage.
A superb kick from Keagan Russell-Smith helped the Panthers to get on the board after Knights prop Connor Cromarty was sent to the sin-bin. The five-eighth’s kick bounced up into Harrison Hassett’s hands and he made no mistake on the put-down. Russell-Smith nailed the conversion from in front of the posts to take a two-point lead.
Newcastle hooker Noah Nailagoliva created something from nothing in the 16th minute, wrestling his way through the Panthers defence to ground the ball on the line. Ferguson failed to convert from close range, but the home side were now back in front.
Quick to increase their lead, Knights fullback Fletcher Sharpe faked a pass to his right before running 80 metres around the Panthers line down the left edge to score. This time the conversion was on target for Ferguson, who extended Newcastle’s lead to eight.
A huge tackle-breaking run from Luke Hanson, who embraced the fullback position this week, brought Penrith back into good field position. Hanson combined with his usual halves partner Russell-Smith, who also stormed downfield with ease.
Jesse McLean rewarded the efforts of his teammates, making the most of an overlap on the left edge to ground the ball in the corner. Russell-Smith failed to convert from touch on the siren as the Knights hit the sheds with the lead.
HALF-TIME: PANTHERS 10 – KNIGHTS 14
After suffering a wrist injury early in the season, Isaiya Katoa reunited with the side today, stepping up to the challenge in the second half with a perfectly placed kick sitting up for Delahia Wigmore to take possession of the ball and crash over the line to level the scores.
Three minutes later McLean claimed his second try of the day, capitalising off a chip kick from Russell-Smith that was fumbled by the Knights whilst Katoa was on the ground injured in back-play.
Two uncharacteristic misses from Russell-Smith meant Penrith’s lead was within reach for the Knights.
Putting the pressure on the Panthers, Newcastle received back-to-back goal line dropouts, eventually finding the try-line on the third attempt when Cooper Bigeni dived over to level the scores once again. Ferguson’s conversion sailed through the uprights to put the Knights ahead by two.
Ferguson looked almost certain to score again for the Knights, intercepting a pass from Katoa and sprinting 70 metres, but the referee ruled the centre offside and Penrith were granted another opportunity to strike.
In the same set, Panthers hooker Ryley Smith burrowed his way to the try-line but the referee denied his try, ruling a knock on.
The Knights attempted a quick restart, but Penrith forward John Sagaga delayed their attempt to get to the 20-metre line and was consequently sent to the sin-bin.
Newcastle punished the 12-man Panthers after Smith suffered in injury making a tackle, leaving a hole in the line which Sharpe charged at, before offloading to Nailagoliva who bagged a double. Ferguson’s conversion was pin-point accurate, taking the Knights lead out to eight with 11 minutes left of play.
Once again Ferguson provided the spark, jumping on the back of Hanson to receive a bomb on the fifth tackle to seal the win for his team. Converting his own try on the siren, Ferguson cemented the Knights second place finish, whilst the Panthers must win two knock-out finals to make the Grand Final.
FULL-TIME: PANTHERS 18 – KNIGHTS 32