The Penrith Panthers have defied the early loss of halfback Nathan Cleary to hold on and defeat a spirited St George Illawarra Dragons side 26-18 to close out Round 14.
Cleary was forced from the field in the 16th minute after clutching at his hamstring after trying to make a tackle. While he will need to have scans to confirm the scale of the injury, it could have huge ramifications for the Panthers and for the NSW Blues with Origin II only 17 days away.
In the match, it was yet another close loss for the Dragons who pushed the Panthers all the way in what was overall an entertaining, if somewhat clunky match, with errors and penalties marring the flow of the game.
The Dragons were the first team on the board when Zac Lomax slotted a penalty goal with eight minutes gone after Cleary was ruled to have obstructed the defenders when Brian To'o was attempting to bring the ball back for the Panthers.
However, their lead was short-lived, with the Panthers then turning on their attack, capitalising on a penalty of their own to charge up the field, thanks mostly to a hard carry from Moses Leota, before a nice Cleary pass out wide found an unmarked To'o to go over untouched.
Mikaele Ravalawa scored the first of the tries for the Dragons and his first of two for the night to put his side back in the contest.
He scored his second with four minutes remaining in the half to put the Dragons in front, but the Panthers showed their class to ensure they didn't go to the sheds behind, with To'o going over for his second in the dying seconds of the half. The try came after the Panthers won a scrum with 35 seconds to go, moving upfield for Jack Cogger - who had been subbed on for Cleary - to put in a pinpoint kick, finding his man out wide, with Stephen Crichton landing the conversion for a 12-12 scoreline.
Big effort by Ben Hunt
In an end-to-end game, Dragons captain Ben Hunt was one of the best on field for his team, backing up his 50-plus minutes in Queensland's Origin win with a whole-hearted performance which kept his side in the game throughout.
The second half was just as close with the Dragons fighting hard and again drawing scores level 18-18 with 13 minutes to play.
However, the Panthers - despite being scrappy at times - never panicked and again were able to pull a win from the fire, with skipper Isaah Yeo producing a huge play, producing an offload to his forward Leota who was able to go over and score the match-winner with 10 minutes to play.
Yeo offload leads to Leota try
The Dragons - who lost forward Jack de Belin to a head knock in the second half - had a try disallowed late in the second half for an obstruction to put to bed their resistance.
Match: Panthers v Dragons
Round 14 -
Venue: BlueBet Stadium, Penrith
- The biggest news to come from the match was the injury to Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary, who left the field after 16 minutes, clutching at his hamstring. He is yet to have scans, but the injury could have huge ramifications for Origin II at Suncorp Stadium if the Blues are forced to make a change.
- His halves partner Jarome Luai also sent a scare through the team when he was left holding his ankle after going down after making a tackle in the second half.
- Earlier in the match, the Dragons first on the board when Zac Lomax kicked the first of two penalty goals.
- Jack Cogger slotted in for Cleary at halfback and nearly had a try assist with his first kick, but Isaah Yeo was denied a try after the Panthers were ruled to have knocked on in the ensuing contest for the ball.
- Cogger told FOX he wasn't overawed with having to come in for Cleary as he had trained with the team all week.
- Penrith hit the lead to start the second half after opting to kick for goal after being awarded a penalty for the Dragons being offside.
- The Panthers scored their first try of the second half through Sunia Turuva in somewhat controversial circumstances after some Dragons fans questioned their right to have the ball after the visitors were ruled to have knocked the ball on inside their own half, with a late call from the sideline official.
- Play was held up for a number minutes mid-way through the second half with concern showed for Dragons forward Jack De Belin whose head connected with the hip of a Penrith player.
- Dragons regrouped and scored next, with Lomax latching onto a Ben Hunt kick, outleaping Izack Tago to put the ball down. He was able to convert his try to draw score level 18-18 at with 13 minutes to go to ensure an exciting finish to the game.
Lomax terrific catch for try
- This match was the third game of the day to have teams level at halftime.
- The Panthers have now won their past six matches against the Dragons.
- The Dragons have won only one of their past seven games at BlueBet Stadium.
- Prior to this match, the Panthers had conceded a total of 14 points in their past three games.
- The Dragons have now lost eight from eight away from home this season.
- The Panthers have won 31 of their past 34 games at BlueBet Stadium.
Play of the Game
Trailing by six points and with 30 seconds left on the clock until halftime, the Panthers ensured they went into the halftime break with scores level at 12-12 after some smart play after winning a scrum late in the half. A Dragons error in the shadows of the break gifted the Panthers the scrum and Cogger then stepped up produce a fantastic kick out wide to a chasing To'o who ran to score his second of the day.
Penrith trick shot pays dividends
What They Said
Dragons: Round 14
“It’s a tough one. I said to the boys, I think we took a few steps forward as a group today in a lot of areas of our game, areas that we have identified that we need to be a lot better at, I think you could tell against a good opposition away from home that was a much better performance by us as a team. We are not going to accept the scoreboard by any means, but there were a lot of positives to take out of that. I think eventually we actually probably gave them enough opportunities to beat ourselves." - Dragons coach Ryan Carr
Panthers: Round 14
“It was a tough game, they certainly turned up like that have been in most game this year. They had a good run of possession early in the game. When obviously Nat when down, it was going to cause a bit of mental disarray for a while. We let a try just after that which I was disappointed with. I thought Cogs (Jack Cogger) came on and did an admirable job considering. Nathan is not just a halfback, he’s one of the best in the game and he does a lot for our team, a lot of things revolve around him. Thought (Isaah)Yeo was outstanding in his absence as well.” - Panthers coach Ivan Cleary
Next week, the Dragons will host the Rabbitohs at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium on Saturday.
The Panthers will travel to Allianz Stadium later that evening to take on the Roosters.