A 75th minute Tom Humble field goal has allowed Penrith to escape Collegians Sports Complex with a hard fought 19-18 win over the Illawarra Cutters, to complete what has been an arduous 4 game horror road trip. The win, achieved in wet & windy conditions, was the Panthers’ 5th win in a row & their 9th from their last 10 starts which sees them go top of the NSW Cup ladder at the half way point of the season. The conditions didn’t allow for much free-flowing footy but it was a gripping contest nonetheless between the competition’s two best defensive teams.
Both sides were hit with key late changes to the team announced earlier in the week. Illawarra lost both Adam Quinlan & Shane Pumipi to the Dragons NRL squad while Sam Williams succumbed to injury but did gain the services of Jack De Belin along with the late inclusion of Fijian international, Peni Botiki.
The Panthers lost Bryce Cartwright, who made his NRL debut two nights earlier v the Eels along with Ben Murdoch-Masila due to illness, but those losses were offset by the inclusions of Matt Robinson & Tim Grant.
Illawarra got off to a dream start, capitalising on an early glut of possession to opening the scoring in the 6th minute when replacement half Sam Duggan drifted across the face of the Panthers goal line defence before finding centre Charly Runciman to stroll over to score unopposed out wide. Michael Witt’s conversion giving the Cutters a 6-0 lead. Runciman had the opportunity to score a double minutes later when put into the clear from deep inside his own half, but was stopped in his track in a brilliant try saving tackle from fullback Kieran Moss.
Penrith dominated possession & territory over the course of the next twenty minutes to take the game by the scruff of the neck scoring two tries in the process. The first try came in the 15th minute when Humble ran the ball on the last close to the Cutters try line before producing a big right foot step & reaching out to score under the posts. Wes Naiqama, in his first game back from injury since Round 6, converted to level the scores. The Panthers then scored back to back tries when Kierran Moseley cut through the Cutters defense on a scorching dummy half run from halfway before sending Moss on a 20m run to score under the posts to give the Panthers a 12-6 lead.
The last ten minutes however saw the Panthers go astray from a game plan that had served them well for the majority of the first half, making errors & conceding penalties as the rain began to bucket down. This enabled the Cutters to level the scores on the stroke of half time with a soft try scored by former Panther, Shannon Wakeman, who managed to get the ball down from close range despite three defenders hanging off him.
Illawarra as they did in the first half, started the second half in strong fashion, opening the scoring when a short ball from Witt, put De Belin into a yawning gap through Penrith’s left edge, with the back-rower going on a surging 30m run to score in the right corner. Witt’s conversion from the sideline giving the Cutters the lead once more 18-12.
The Cutters continued to dominate possession & territory over the next 15 minutes but resolute defence denied Illawarra the chance to extend the lead. Penrith’s efforts in defence were rewarded with a try albeit against the run of play midway through the second half when the Panthers through their five-eighth Will Smith, attacked Illawarra’s right edge sending play down the left inside their 20m zone, before Kevin Naiqama provided a brilliant flick offload to put Eto Nabuli in the left corner. Wes Naiqama’s conversion hit the post but the Panthers were suddenly back in the game trailing by just 2 points.
The last twenty minutes saw the Panthers control possession & gain territorial ascendancy & were allowed to level the scores in the 69th minute after some poor Illawarra discipline at the play the ball, enabled Wes Naiqama to convert the penalty goal attempt from 25m out. The Panthers ability to play smarter over the remaining ten minutes allowed them to secure the win with a Humble field goal from just inside the Cutters’ 20m zone with less then 5 minutes remaining on the clock.
Although critical of his side’s execution at times today, coach Garth Brennan was extremely proud of the side’s commitment especially in defence when the things weren’t going the Panthers way in the first 20 minutes of the second half. Brennan is pleased that his side has ended the first half of the season in top spot, but isn’t getting carried away adding that “our results will be judged on what we achieve in September, not in May-June”.
The Panthers finally return home to SportingBet Stadium this Saturday when they host the Wyong Roos keen to make amends for their shock Round 2 loss while the Cutters hosts the Sharks at Win Stadium in a must-win game as they attempt to avoid losing 4 games in a row.
Penrith Panthers 19 (Tries: T Humble, K Moss, E Nabuli; Goals: W Naiqama 3/4; Field Goal: T Humble) def. Illawarra Cutters 18 (Tries: C Runciman, S Wakeman, J De Belin; Goals: M Witt 3/3) at Collegians Sports Complex.