The last-placed North Sydney Bears overcame the loss of key personnel to record a stunning 26-18 win over the defending premiers in what surely ranks as the upset of the season so far.
For the past five games, the Penrith Panthers have been a model of consistency built around a simple game plan of getting to their kick and relying on their defence to force teams into error. The opening 40 minutes against the Bears however, was one to forget for the Panthers given their low completion rate and compounded by a defensive line that leaked six line breaks.
The Bears win is even more meritorious considering they lost influential skipper Matt Hyland, the experienced Scott Sorensen and the team’s top try scorer, Sam Manuleleua before kick-off.
The Panthers, already bolstered by Isaac John’s return, were further boosted when enforcer Adam Docker was deemed fit to play his first game since his Round 3 send-off against the Jets.
The opening minutes of the game was punctuated by errors, but the Bears scored first to lead 6-0 after nine minutes. Prop Fred Junior Mauala burrowed his way over to score after Penrith junior Evan Lee offloaded in heavy traffic.
Buoyed by their lead, the Bears repeatedly targeted the Panthers outer right edge defence, while their kicking game often earned repeat sets. Their lead was soon doubled in the 18th minute when replacement hooker Jackson Garlick sold a gigantic dummy before diving over from dummy half.
The Panthers lacked direction from their key playmakers and were further punished for their listless play in the 34th minute when a quick spread close to the Panthers tryline put Darryl Millard on an angled run to score out near the right corner post. Darren Nicholls’ conversion attempt hit the post, but nonetheless the Panthers were stunned, trailing 16-0 at halftime.
The second half saw a complete reversal as the Bears repeatedly coughed up possession, which gifted the Panthers the territorial advantage that they lacked in the first half.
Chris Smith capitalised on that advantage for the Panthers, after some quick hands inside the Bears’ 20, involving John and Pat Hollis, allowed the centre to crash over from close range to trail by 10.
Within ten minutes, the Panthers levelled the game through two quick tries to Tom Eisenhuth and Eddie Aiono, both scoring from close range with John and Sam Scarlett respectively instrumental in the lead up to those tries.
The Panthers could have easily wrapped up the game had they converted their opportunities into points, having bombed three certain try-scoring opportunities during the opening 25 minutes of the second half.
A simple penalty goal from 20 metres out for Will Smith did allow the Panthers to claim the lead for the first time in the match with eight minutes remaining.
Just as the Panthers appeared set to claim victory, the Bears were awarded a late tackle penalty in good field position in what was a game-changing call.
The Bears capitalised, starving the Panthers of possession before tries to Cody Walker and Darren Nicholls in the last five minutes of the game sealed a shock but deserved 26-18 win to the Bears.
Both Penrith and North Sydney now have Round 11 byes before the Panthers travel to Brookvale Oval to take on Manly the following Saturday, while on the same day, the Bears take on the Wests Tigers at Leichhardt Oval.
North Sydney 26 (F Mauala, J Garlick, D Millard, C Walker, D Nicholls tries; D Nicholls 3 goals) def Penrith 18 (C Smith, T Eisenhuth, E Aiono tries; W Smith 3 goals)