Penrith Panthers are one game away from the Jersey Flegg Grand Final after ending St George Illawarra Dragons’ season with a fiery 36-26 victory at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium on Saturday.
Returning to Jersey Flegg after a length stint in NSW Cup, Isaiah Iongi helped the Panthers claim a steady lead in the first half by setting up one try and scoring two. But the Dragons entered the second half with new energy, throwing everything they had at the Panthers. A final minute try scored by halfback Keagan-Russell Smith kept the Panthers season alive as they adance to the Preliminary Final.
After Dragons prop Dallas Collins was penalised for a crusher tackle in the opening set, the Panthers took advantage of the possession and field position to set up a try in the second minute. Keagan Russell-Smith placed a chip-kick over the Dragons line for his halves partner Niwhai Puru to ground in-goal. Puru converted his own try, giving Penrith a six-point advantage.
St George Illawarra were quick to respond through a Zach Herring line-break that put Benjamin Johnson over in the left corner. Fullback Treigh Stewart couldn’t convert the try from touch, although the effort reduced Penrith’s lead to two.
A high tackle on Penrith centre William Fakatoumafi gave the Panthers another opportunity within close range. Fullback Isaiah Iongi demonstrated his attacking talent, breaking two tackles before plowing through a third on the try line, where he grounded the ball. Puru kicked the conversion from close-range to make the difference eight.
Once again Iongi provided the spark in attack, creating a try-scoring opportunity off the scrum by flicking winger Cody Lawson a pass, before he leaped into the corner to claim another four points for the Panthers in the 17th minute. Puru’s conversion attempt from the sideline waved away.
Iongi claimed a first half double 11 minutes later, challenging the Dragons defence by reaching through the tackle to ground the ball on the line. In the same position as his last conversion attempt, Puru couldn’t find the uprights, so the score remained 16-4.
Niwhai Puru broke the St George Illawarra defensive line, offloading to his twin brother Hohepa to extend Penrith’s lead in the 30th minute. The five-eighth added the extras from close range to give the Panthers a significant lead.
An error off the restart gave the Dragons a chance to get back into the game. Usuing the field position, Treigh Stewart drew in the defence before offloading to Callum Gromek who stepped inside to score. Sam Hooper couldn’t convert try from touch.
HALF-TIME: PANTHERS 26 - DRAGONS 8
Two minutes into the second half the Dragons capitalised off an overlap on the right edge overlap with Alex Lobb scooping up a loose ball to snag four points. Hooper’s conversion cleared the posts, reducing the deficit to 12.
After Hohepa Puru was penalised and put on report for a dangerous tackle, St George Illawarra plotted their attack once more. With their front rowers taking the majority of the hit-ups, they eventually found their way over through interchange forward Toby Couchman who spun around to find a space to ground the ball. Hoper converted the try to make the score 26-20.
In similar fashion to Couchman’s try only three minutes earlier, Panthers second-rower Ativalu Lisati bulldozed through the Dragons defence, twisting around to put the ball down. Puru kicked the two-pointed to halt St George Illawarra’s building momentum.
Steward delivered Lobb a cut-out ball for the winger to claim a second-half double in the 55th minute to keep the Dragons in the game. Hooper converted the try to take to bring St George Illawarra within six points of the lead.
Defending for their season, the Panthers shut down repeat sets which eventually resulted in Stewart knocking the ball on two minutes before full-time.
A final minute try to Russell-Smith was the icing on the cake for Jono Rolfe’s team, who now progress to the preliminary final where they’ll face either the Newcastle Knights or Sydney Roosters.
FULL-TIME: PANTHERS 36 - DRAGONS 26