In an absorbing and at times physical encounter that lived up to the pre-match anticipation, Penrith held off a fast-finishing Newcastle side to win the second grand final replay, 30-24 at Pepper Stadium.
In an evenly matched first half, Penrith led 14-12 before skipping out to lead 30-12 with thirteen minutes remaining. Newcastle hit back immediately with two tries in five minutes to set up a grandstand finish heading into the final minutes of the game, before the Panthers prevailed.
The win sees the Panthers increase their lead atop the ladder to three points, heading into the bye while the Knights drop back to sixth in what is a congested top eight.
Penrith were strengthened by the late inclusion of Sam Anderson, Adam Docker and Sione Katoa to their starting side at the expense of Matt Eisenhuth, Nathan Smith and Sam Scarlett in a reshuffle to their pack.
Newcastle, minus regular custodian Nathan Ross, were dealt a further blow when replacement fullback Jake Mamo was a late withdrawal, replaced by Tyme Dow-Nikau.
The opening exchanges proved fiery at times with Penrith’s Leilani Latu and Will Smith both put on report by referee Damien Briscoe for late tackles, with the ensuing penalties allowing the Knights to dominate territory to earn multiple sets inside the Panthers’ 20 but to no avail.
Having survived that early flurry from the Knights, Penrith scored two tries in six minutes through Isaac John and Eddie Aiono to open up a 10-0 lead, with both tries scored down the Knights left edge in defence after Penrith received a flurry of penalties.
As with Penrith’s opening two tries, a run of penalties in the Knights favour allowed Newcastle to score back-to-back tries through Chad Redman and Joseph Tapine, both from close range, to regain the lead 12-10 after 29 minutes.
Newcastle looked set to lead going into halftime until an error from Knights skipper and ex-Panther Clint Newton allowed the Panthers one last scoring opportunity, which they capitalised when quick hands created the overlap for Aiono to score his second try of the afternoon to snatch a 14-12 half-time lead.
Penrith opened the scoring early in the second half when Will Smith scored from a well-placed grubber kick from John to lead 20-12.
Eddie Aiono left the game soon after with a concussion but Penrith scored again midway through the second half through Papua New Guinea International Wellington Albert for his first VB NSW Cup try. Katoa then burst through the Knights’ line on halfway before finding prop, Leilani Latu to score next to the posts.
At 30-12 it Penrith appeared to seal the victory with 13 minutes remaining.
But to their credit, Newcastle bounced back immediately when the kick-off was fumbled by Tupou Sopoaga and regathered by Lachlan Fitzgibbon, whose damaging run put Wellington Albert out of the game with a dislocated shoulder before going on with the job to score out wide. The gap was reduced to 12 points after a successful conversion from near the sideline by Kieran Holland.
Newcastle scored again, this time from a determined run by Danny Levi with eight minutes remaining to set up an exciting finish but Penrith were able to repel the Knights’ remaining attacking raids to run out victors, much to the relief of their coach, Garth Brennan.
Penrith now have their second and final bye of the season to look forward to next weekend, while Newcastle play at Campbelltown Stadium when they tackle Wests Tigers next Saturday at 3pm.
Penrith 30 (E Aiono 2, I John, W Smith, W Albert tries; W Smith 1 goal, A Davis 2 goals) def Newcastle 24 (Redman, Tapine, Fitzgibbon, Levi tries; K Holland 4 goals)