It began with slick attack and finished with resilient defence; the Penrith Panthers are through to the Preliminary Finals after a nail-biting 28-18 victory over the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs.
Ill-discipline dogged the opening 10 minutes of the game with both teams giving away multiple penalties that hindered any flow. The Panthers went close to scoring first off the back of their gifted field possession but knocked the ball on in the act of scoring.
The Panthers then gifted the Bulldogs some field position after the turnover with back-to-back penalties, and the latter would convert this chance into points when Francis Tualau charged onto a Josh Cleeland pass, and nobody could stop the big man from that range.
Disaster struck for the Bulldogs when they dropped the kick-off, and a cool-headed Caleb Aekins forced a dropout off the ensuing set. Liam Martin made the Bulldogs play with one of the best forward tries of the season when he charged onto a pass straight up the middle of the field and left plenty of battered defenders behind him.
Remarkably, Penrith then dropped the kick-off as the Bulldogs just did but were able to hold them out. Upon making their way back into good field position, some brilliant second phase play from Saunders leg to Wayde Egan throw a brilliant pass to Aekins who strolled over untouched.
The Bulldogs defended another Panthers’ barrage, but the hard-work came undone when a misdirected offload by Jayden Okunbor was swooped on by Liam Coleman, and he ran away to increase their lead to 18-6.
Penrith picked up where they left off before half-time, scoring first after the break off a right-to-left shift that finished with Tyrone Phillips charging onto a ball and throwing a perfectly-timed pass to try-scorer Ratu Tuisese.
The Bulldogs had to be next to score to remain and chance, and the pure will and determination from Renouf To’oamaga made that happen when he powered his way through the Panthers defence off a Brown pass, meaning the two first try-scorers were the starting front rowers.
The comeback was on when the Bulldogs went back-to-back when Sam Smith misjudged a Brown bomb and dropped the ball, before John Olive picked up the scraps to reduce the deficit to 22-18.
The Bulldogs forced three dropouts before a forward pass was thrown and the Penrith players and bench went up like they had won the game given the resilient defence shown to hold them out. Billy Burns then sealed a Preliminary Final appearance for the Panthers after receiving a scrum from close range when he stretched out to score.
The Panthers get a week off now, and the Bulldogs face the winning team in tomorrow’s Western Suburbs Magpies v Wyong Roos clash.