The Penrith Panthers overcame an indifferent 1st half performance to comfortably book a spot in the NSW Cup Grand Final where they will take on the 2nd place Newcastle Knights, with a 31-12 win in the preliminary final at Leichhardt Oval.
The Panthers came out of the blocks in the opening 15 minutes to stamp their authority on the game, scoring three tries after perhaps being lucky to be level at half time 12-12 given the Magpies were on the balance of play the better side in the opening 40 minutes. In the process, the Panthers have now become the only side to have scored in excess of 800 points in the season and concede under 500 points in the season. Penrith since their last loss have now scored 261 points whilst conceding just 68 points in their 7 match winning streak that has seen the minor premiers win an amazing 22 games from their last 24.
The Panthers came into this game with three key late inclusions in the starting side – David Simmons, Isaah Yeo and Kevin Kingston all returning from injury. Kingston’s return all the more remarkable given it was just 4 weeks earlier that he suffered what many thought was a season and in fact career-ending injury against the Melbourne Storm.
The Panthers as is often the case got off to another quick start when Kingston advantage of some sloppy marker defence to burst through the middle from 35m out before finding Panthers NSW Cup Player of the Year, Ryan Simpkins backing up to score under the posts and with Wes Naiqama making no mistake with the conversion, the Panthers led 6-0.
Wentworthville started the game with plenty of vigour through their big forwards pack and their roll on from a repeat allowed Luke Kelly to run the ball on the last deep inside the Panthers’ 20m zone before his cut-out pass to Val Toutai was tipped on to former Panthers lower grades winger, Jake Butler-Fleming to score from close range and with Kelly’s conversion from out wide levelled the scores after 12 minutes.
Wentworthville dominated possession in the opening 20 minutes helped by a healthy penalty count in their favour and it was no surprise to see them take the lead when Justin Hunt found a rampaging Danny Howard on the burst to reach out and score from close range and with the successful conversion from in front of the posts, the Magpie were good for their 12-6 lead.
The Panthers created a few half chances but a combination of poor last tackle options and desperate Wentworthville denied Penrith any real opportunity to get back into the match until a rare error in the last minute of play before halftime allowed Penrith to quickly pack the scrum on their own 20m which reaped instant rewards when play shifted quickly to the left for Yeo to burst through down the left before putting Kevin Naiqama on a 45m run to score in the left corner. With Wes Naiqama on the bench having started the game in the forwards to accommodate Simmons on the wing, it was left to Tim Humble to nail the conversion from the touchline and bring Penrith level at 12-12.
The Panthers came out of the blocks clearly revved up by their coach Garth Brennan who would not have been happy to have just 41% possession for the opening half and concede 7 penalties to 1. An early error from the Magpies allowed the Panthers to build pressure inside the Wenty 20m zone and it was Luke Capewell who looked to go sideways before straightening at the line provided a sublime offload to prop Reagan Campbell-Gillard to crash over from close range and the Panthers for the first time since the opening minutes of the game were back in the lead at 18-12.
The Panthers doubled their lead soon after in the 47th minute with a well worked try from halfway which saw Humble take play out to the right before putting Waqa Blake away down the right touchline before finding Simmons backing up inside who in turn found speedster Kieran Moss to score.
Wentworthville looked set to get back in the match moments later when Luke Kelly made a long line break but his pass 20m out from the try-line went astray. They were made to pay for that error in the 57th minute with the best try of the game. Again attacking Wenty’s left edge from 60m out, Moss wrapped around Nathan Smith before combining with Blake to create the overlap for Wes Naiqama to streak away down the right touchline before finding Kingston backing up inside with a long pass who in turn floated a high pass for Capewell to take and dive underneath the posts for the try that took their lead out to 18 points.
The Panthers continued to dominate possession and territory but couldn’t land the killer blow on the Magpies until the 70th minute when Tom Humble calmly potted over a 25m field goal to seal the win for the Panthers 31-12.
Penrith head into next week’s grand final as warm favourites although Newcastle Knights on a nine match winning streak themselves will be no pushovers themselves having defeated 4th placed Illawarra Cutters 34-10. The Panthers through their feeder club the Windsor Wolves were unsuccessful in 2010 and again in 2013 and a win in this week’s grand final will be their first premiership at this level since way back in 1987. If they are to prevail they made have to do the tough way with three players suffering ankle injuries that sees them possibly in doubt for the big one to be played this Sunday 3pm at Allianz Stadium – Vaipuna Tia Kilifi, David Simmons and Reagan Campbell-Gillard.
Penrith 31 (Tries: R Simpkins, K Naiqama, R Campbell-Gillard, K Moss, L Capewell Goals: W Naiqama 3/3 Tom Humble 2/2 Field Goal) def. Wentworthville 12 (Tries: J Butler-Fleming, D Howard Goals: L Kelly 2/2) at Leichhardt Oval.