By Stewart Moses
The Penrith Panthers have come away from Cessnock to become only the second team in two years to defeat the Knights 38-16 at home thanks to a blistering final 20 minute period that saw them score 34 unanswered points.
Both teams were forced into late changes; the Panthers forced to withdraw Isaah Yeo and Ryan Simpkins for first grade duties with Waqa Blake promoted from the Holden Cup squad to start in the centres. This forced a reshuffle in the backs, most noticeably of which was Bryce Cartwright starting at five eighth. The Knights were without the services of Pat Vai Vai called up to make his NRL debut, replaced by Toka Likiliki, returning from injury.
The Panthers could not have gotten off to a worse start when in just the second minute of play, Kiwi international, Isaac John, was forced out of the match with a suspected season-ending ruptured Achilles tendon. Fortunately for the Panthers there were plenty of options available to coach Garth Brennan to cover for the loss with Daniel Foster coming off the bench to take John’s place.
The Panthers pressed the Newcastle line early in the game on the back of several repeat sets provided by early Knights errors when in possession but their resolute defence was rewarded when Newcastle opened the scoring in the 15th minute after Likiliki went out to Penrith’s left edge from close range and stormed over for the try. Mantellato’s conversion gave the Knights a 6-0 lead somewhat against the run of play.
Shortly after it was Newcastle’s turn to suffer an injury when three try hero from their round one encounter, Chanel Mata’utia was forced out of the game with what appeared to be a rib injury. The Panthers were able to capitalise in the next set when a sweeping backline play back out to the right saw Waqa Blake put into a hole from 30m out before he put former Knight Kevin Naiqama in for the try in the right corner.
Newcastle started to dominate possession and territory throughout the remainder of the half but were unable to extend their lead during that period. An ankle injury forcing hooker Kierran Moseley from the field with five minutes remaining to half time threatened to derail the Panthers’ chances of victory. The Panthers’ woes were soon compounded by some poor discipline which allowed Newcastle to head into the halftime break leading 8-4 thanks to the penalty goal to Mantellato.
It was the Knights who came out of the sheds the better scoring in the 44th minute through interchange forward Ben Tupou who stormed onto a short pass from Travis Waddell at dummy half, and Mantellato’s conversion from out wide giving the Knights a handy 14-4 lead.
The Knights dominated territory and possession and the Panthers defence looked on the rack conceding numerous penalties yet a decision to take a penalty goal in the 53rd minute, ultimately proved to be the turning point of this game.
Having been starved of quality possession up until this point, a rare kick error from Michael Dobson inside his own 30m line invited the Panthers to mount their comeback. Ben Murdoch Masila’s barnstorming individual try from fifteen out was the catalyst for the next 20 minutes which saw the Panthers pile on 34 uncontested points that no-one inside Cessnock Sports Ground would have saw coming.
From the kick-off the Panthers levelled the scores on the back of some strong hit-ups from Sam Anderson and Fijian international prop, Reagan Campbell-Gillard. Then Moseley, who was able to get back on the field, caught the Knights markers napping with a quick dart from half way before finding Bryce Cartwright who in turn provided a sub-lime offload to Waqa Blake to breakthrough Matt Minto’s attempted tackle to score, tying the scores at 16-all
Further repeat sets allowed the Panthers to finally hit the lead in the 67th minute when interchange forward, Vaipuna Tia Kilifi barged over to score out wide, giving the Panthers a 22-16 lead. The Panthers then, from the next set, scored again when more good work on halfway from Moseley allowed the hooker to make the half break before putting Luke Capewell in the clear before finding Kieran Moss backing up to score underneath the posts.
The Panthers weren’t done with yet though and put the Knights to the sword in the final five minutes of the game. A chip kick from half way from Bryce Cartwright went into no man’s land before Waqa Blake was first to the ball to re-gather and sprint away to score in the right corner. Then, on the stroke of full time, Sam Anderson’s huge workload for the game was rewarded when the front-rower barged through several tackles to force his way over from close range to complete the amazing comeback.
This weekend the Knights will travel to North Sydney Oval on Sunday to face the Bears while the Panthers head to Belmore on Friday night to face the Dogs.
Penrith Panthers 38 (W Blake 2, K Naiqama, B Murdoch Masila, V Tia Kilifi, K Moss, S Anderson tries; W Smith 5 goals) def. Newcastle Knights 16 (B Tupou, T Likiliki tries; J Mantellato 4 goals) at Cessnock Sports Ground.