The Battle of the Big Cats went the way of the Penrith Panthers for the fourth time in succession with a dominant 34-20 win over an error-riddled Wests Tigers side at Campbelltown Stadium.
The Panthers dominated possession early to skip out to an early 18-0 lead inside the opening twenty minutes of the game before Wests Tigers scored two tries just before halftime to trail 18-10.
But as was the case in the first half, Penrith again dominated the opening 20 minutes of the second half, scoring 16 unanswered points to pull away to a commanding 34-10 lead before two late Wests Tigers tries added some respectability to the final score.
Penrith’s win ended a three-game losing streak and sees the defending premiers in a four-way tie for first place with Mounties, New Zealand Warriors and Wyong on 28 competition points but remain in third on for and against.
Conversely, Wests Tigers are in danger of missing the finals after losing their third game in a row and their sixth from their past seven starts.
Penrith came into this game with some big inclusions. Prolific try-scoring fullback Kieran Moss returned from his a second serious leg injury of the season while NSW Cup representative prop, Sam Anderson was a late inclusion.
Wests Tigers were forced into a reshuffle when Joel Luani was ruled out with injury, with Tim Moltzen shifted to the halves and Kurtis Rowe to fullback to accommodate Jarred Farlow as the starting hooker.
The home side didn’t get off to the best of starts with early errors allowing the Panthers to score back-to-back tries to Makino Filino (his first at this level) and former Wests Tiger Ben Murdoch-Masila in the 9th and 11th minutes to lead 12-0.
The Panthers went further ahead in the 18th minute when a Tupou Sopoaga cut-out pass deep inside his own half caught Tim Moltzen out of position in defence, allowing Malakai Watene-Zelezniak to streak down the left touchline before finding Moss on his inside to score underneath the posts and with John’s successful conversion, Penrith led 18-0.
When Wests Tigers finally got some quality possession they exploited some defensive weaknesses on Penrith’s right edge to get back into the match.
A short ball from Rowe close to the line put Nathan Milone over in the 31st minute before a long break down the left touchline from winger John Sila three minutes later, was finished off in style by Rowe to leave Wests Tigers trailing by eight at the break.
The break came at a good time for the Panthers who seemed to lose their way in the latter stages of the first half and it quickly showed in the second half when they scored three unanswered tries to take a commanding 34-10 lead with 20 minutes remaining.
Ben Murdoch-Masila’s searching run down the Tigers’ right edge drew in the defenders before his off-load and quick hands from Brent Naden put Eddie Aiono over in the corner after just five minutes of play.
Grubber kicks at the line from Isaac John and Sam Scarlett respectively caused much trouble as Scarlett and Makino took full advantage of some wicked deflections to score in the 49th and 58th minutes respectively.
Whilst Garth Brennan would have been happy with his side’s completion rate he would not have been happy with their ill-discipline in defence conceding seven penalties to three, which allowed Wests Tigers to still score two late tries.
Back-rower Lamar Liolevave provided a clever pass to put Rowe away on a 40-metre run to score his second try of the afternoon in the 68th minute, before bench-player Penani Manumalealii dived over from dummy half in the dying stages of the game to reduce the margin to 34-20.
Next Saturday, Penrith travel to Wollongong to take on the Illawarra Cutters while Wests Tigers have the bye.
Penrith Panthers 34 (M Filino 2, B Murdoch-Masila, K Moss, E Aiono, S Scarlett tries; I John 5 goals) def Wests Tigers 20 (K Rowe 2, N Milone, P Manumalealii tries; J Drinkwater 2 goals)