Eels winger Maika Sivo scored four tries as the Panthers suffered a blow to their premiership campaign after star five-eighth Jarome Luai suffered a serious shoulder injury.
With their season all but over, Parramatta finished on a high with a 32-18 triumph in the derby clash before a sold out BlueBet Stadium crowd but Penrith were left with more to worry about than a rare loss.
The Panthers now need to beat the Cowboys next weekend and rely on the Broncos losing to Canberra or Melbourne to claim a third minor premiership in four years but of more concern is how long Luai will be sidelined.
The NSW and Samoa playmaker watched the final 53 minutes from the bench after reportedly dislocating his left shoulder trying to ground the ball for a try.
He was held up by Eels forward Bryce Cartwright and concerned players immediately called that Luai had suffered a serious injury.
Parramatta captain Clint Gutherson also failed to finish the match but he inspired his team to a fourth defeat of Penrith in their last six clashes before hobbling off in the 65th minute.
Jarome Luai has left the field
With the Eels having started strongly in their last two matches against the Storm and Roosters, but fading before halftime, coach Brad Arthur shifted Junior Paulo and J'maine Hopgood to the bench, alongside Shaun Lane.
The move paid dividends as Parramatta were leading 6-4 when Hopgood replaced Wiremu Greig in the 18th minute and he produced two offloads in the next set before Sivo scored his second try.
The Fiji star was awarded an eight point try after being hit high by rookie Penrith fullback Jesse McLean as he crossed in the corner and while captain Clint Gutherson missed the conversion he had a second kick from in front of the posts.
Maika Sivo Try
Sivo scored his third try in the 24th minute after Parramatta five-eighth Daejarn Asi combined with Gutherson and centre Bailey Simonsson to create room out wide for the rampaging winger.
Down 18-4, the Panthers were desperate to get back into the game and Luai appeared set to score when he burrowed for the tryline but was held up by Bryce Cartwright and immediately clutched for his left shoulder.
With Luai's departure forcing a reshuffle as Jack Cogger shifted to five-eighth and hooker Soni Luke coming on as a replacement, the premiers were only just hanging on when Gutherson scored three minutes before halftime.
Clinton Gutherson Try
It was a blow from which Penrith would not recover and despite a notable lift in intensity when they started the second half, the game was effectively over as a contest when Gutherson crossed again in the 43rd minute.
However, Gutherson had been troubled by a knee injury all match and when he was unable to stop Nathan Cleary from racing through the ruck to score in the 66th minute he put his hand up to come off.
Nathan Cleary Try
The Panthers scored two further tries through Liam Martin and Tom Jenkins but it was too little too late.
Match: Panthers v Eels
Round 26 -
Venue: BlueBet Stadium, Penrith
- Penrith may have blown the chance to be crowned minor premiers for the third time in four seasons.
- Parramatta prop Junior Paulo ran 175 metres in two stints totalling 46 minutes after starting on the interchange bench.
- The Eels stopped the Panthers from becoming the first team to win nine consecutive matches for four seasons in a row.
- Parramatta playmaker Dylan Brown produced two try assists in a top clash performance and finished the match at fullback after Gutherson's injury.
- Penrith have now lost four of 37 games at BlueBet Stadium since 2020.
- The match was played before the first sell-out crowd for a Thursday night match in NRL history.
- The Eels have won four of their last six games against the Panthers.
- Panthers second-rower Liam Martin made his 100th NRL appearance.
- Eels winger Maika Sivo has now scored 33 tries in his past 36 games, including 20 this season.
Play of the game
Trailing 18-4 and with star five-eighth Jarome Luai off the field, Penrith were desperately trying to hang on until halftime when Eels captain Clint Gutherson sliced between Tyrone Peachey and Tom Jenkins to score a 37th minute try that all but ended hopes of a comeback.
Clinton Gutherson Try
What they said
"I just felt like it was sort of coming a bit. We have been drifting a little bit, I reckon. We are still playing okay but there are parts of our game that haven't been up to scratch and they got found out tonight. I can't be too harsh on the boys, they have been that consistent so tonight was an off night. I am disappointed we didn't play well for our fans but we will look back in a couple of weeks and not worry about this game. If anything it might just sharpen up our focus for the coming weeks," - Panthers coach Ivan Cleary.
Panthers: Round 26
"I don't know whether to cry or smile. We are going to miss out by a game but at least we fought to the end. We only had to find one more win and we have got to learn how important each game is and each moment in the games is. But it is better to finish this way and the hurt will be there even more, knowing that we just had to find one more win somewhere because I know what the team can do if we get in the eight," - Eels coach Brad Arthur.
Eels: Round 26
Penrith finish the regular season with another home game next Saturday against North Queensland, while Parramatta's 2023 premiership campaign is officially over.
Panthers fullback Dylan Edwards, centre Sunia Turuva and hooker Mitch Kenney are expected to return against the Cowboys after being rested.
However, coach Ivan Cleary now faces the dilemma of whether to field a full strength team or use the opportunity to freshen up other players for the finals.