Superstar halfback Nathan Cleary was at his majestic best as the Panthers took a huge step towards defending their premiership with a 27-8 win over the Eels on Friday night.
The victory over their western Sydney rivals in front of 21,863 fans at BlueBet Stadium booked the Panthers a spot in the preliminary final and earned them a week off.
The Eels held the early ascendancy after Mitch Moses forced line dropouts in consecutive sets with pinpoint kicks but a dropped ball by Junior Paulo relieved the pressure on the Panthers.
The home side then worked their way upfield on the back of a penalty and centre Stephen Crichton got across the line but was held up by Maika Sivo.
In the 12th minute the Panthers went down a man when winger Taylan May was sin binned for a high shot on Will Penisini but it was the premiers who opened the scoring four minutes later through Brian To'o.
Cleary's back with a vengeance
The try came courtesy of a Cleary spiral bomb which was spilled by Waqa Blake, with Jarome Luai picking up the scraps and finding prop James Fisher-Harris who produced an audacious flick pass to fellow front-rower Moses Leota who sent the final pass to To'o for his ninth try of the season.
A dropped ball by Dylan Edwards in the 23rd minute gave the Eels field position but they were unable to capitalise as the Panthers' goal line defence stood firm.
Come the 29th minute and the Panthers finally cracked when Reed Mahoney put Oregon Kaufusi over from close range with a pinpoint pass. Moses' conversion made it 6-6.
The Eels hit back
Moses attempted to break the deadlock with a field goal three minutes before the break but his shot missed before the Panthers marched up the field and Cleary nailed his one-pointer for a 7-6 lead.
The Panthers had a great chance to extend their lead early in the second half but Cleary was unable to ground the ball after the Eels had made a mess of a bomb.
A high shot by Spencer Leniu on Isaiah Papali'i gave Moses a shot at penalty goal which he potted for an 8-7 Eels lead.
In his first game back from a four-game ban Cleary's kicking game was on song and he drew another mistake from Blake in the 50th minute which resulted in To'o grabbing his second try of the night two minutes later. Cleary converted from touch for a 13-8 Panthers lead.
A huge turning point on the hour mark when Eels playmaker Moses left the field after he was knocked out trying to tackle Viliame Kikau.
Cleary continued his big night out when he laid on a try for Edwards with a deft grubber kick and the premiers had an 11-point lead with 19 minutes to play.
Edwards on the end of a special set play
The superstar No.7 then produced a line break to put the Panthers on the attack and delivered a sublime flick pass for Fisher-Harris to score and the premiers had one foot in the preliminary final.
Sivo went close to pulling one back for the Eels with 14 minutes to play but was denied by desperate last-ditch defence from Edwards.
The Eels made a number of errors in the closing stages as they searched desperately for points but it was the Panthers had the final say when Cleary landed a penalty goal for 27-8.
As opposed to last year where they lost to Souths in week one of the finals and had to go the long way around, the Panthers now get another break to rest and recuperate ahead of another preliminary final.
Match: Panthers v Eels
Finals Week 1 -
Venue: BlueBet Stadium, Penrith
- The Eels lost their captain's challenge in just the eighth minute when they unsuccessfully challenged a knock on by Junior Paulo.
- Panthers winger Taylan May was sent to the sin bin in the 12th minute for a high shot on Will Penisini, who left the field for a HIA which he passed.
- Eels forward Marata Niukore was placed on report in the 19th minute for dangerous contact on Stephen Crichton.
- Eels bench forward Oregon Kaufusi's try was his first since Round 7, 2021 against Brisbane in Darwin.
- James Fisher-Harris had 13 runs for 100 metres and made 25 tackles in his opening 33-minute stint for the Panthers
- Reagan Campbell-Gillard went toe-to-toe with Fisher-Harris, making 109 metres from 14 runs and making 20 minutes in his opening stint.
May sent to the bin
- Panthers prop Spencer Leniu was put on report in the 46th minute for a high tackle on Isaiah Papali'i.
- Shaun Lane left the field for a HIA in the 59th minute and was followed just a minute later by Mtch Moses who copped a head knock when trying to tackle a rampaging Viliame Kikau.
- Nathan Cleary's majestic performance included two try assists, 108 run metres and three tackle breaks.
- The Panthers have won 27 of their past 29 games at BlueBet Stadium.
- Brian To'o racked up 227 metres from 24 runs and had seven tackle breaks.
- Reed Mahoney and Isaiah Papali'i made 85 tackles between them for the Eels.
Fisher-Harris barges over
Play of the Game
The second try of the night for a rampaging Brian To'o came via a deadly combination of precision and power. The slick hands came from Nathan Cleary and then Stephen Crichton, who absorbed the contact from Maika Sivo zeroing in from the wing and delivered a glorious pass to his To'o, who still had plenty of work to do. The Blues Origin winger turned on the jets and carried Dylan Brown and Clint Gutherson over the line with him to make it 10 tries for the season and 42 for his career.
No one is stopping To'o from there
What They Said
"Nathan has always managed to do in the past [come back well after a break]. If he has ever been injured or hasn't played for a while he comes back well for us. I was hoping that was going to happen and the way he was training and the way he looked, I thought he'd go alright. The kick for the Dylan Edwards try came off better than I thought it would. Maybe it was just our night. I felt like he came up with the right kick at the right time most of the time. Every time he put one of those floaters up we got a result. Very proud of him." - Panthers coach Ivan Cleary
Panthers: Finals Week 1
"We didn’t give ourselves a chance in the second half with lack of field position and too many red-zone errors. At 8-7 with 30 minutes to go we gifted them field position, we were going set for set and we the first to break really because we made a couple of red-zone errors which gifted them cheap possession and they got weight of possession and Nathan [Cleary] kicked really well, he kicked us to death probably. We can't be throwing blame at Waqa for making those errors [off Nathan's kicks], we still need to defend those errors and we need to move on to next week. " - Eels coach Brad Arthur
Eels: Finals Week 1
The Panthers have earned themselves a week off and are now just one game away from a grand final while the Eels must lick their wounds and prepare for a sudden-death showdown against the winner of Saturday's Storm v Raiders clash. They will be sweating on the health of playmaker Mitch Moses, who suffered a Category 1 concussion in the second half.