The Illawarra Cutters maintain their spot in the top eight after recording a nail-biting 22-18 win over the Penrith Panthers at WIN Stadium.
The defeat sees the defending premiers lose a share of the competition lead after winning just one of their past five games.
With just four rounds remaining before the Finals, the win over Penrith comes as a timely boost for a Cutters side that came into this clash looking to end a three-game losing streak of their own.
With Mark Ioane and Russell Packer leading the forwards, the Cutters always looked likely for the win despite the closeness of the final score.
Illawarra came out strong to lead 10-0 mid-way through the first half before Penrith reduced the gap to 10-6 by halftime. The Cutters re-established their ten-point lead when Nathan Green scored the first of his two tries only to see Penrith back with back-to-back tries and hit the front. The Panthers quickly relinquished their lead minutes later though.
The Cutters withstood a plethora of late attacking raids from the Panthers to run out deserved winners.
Penrith may have paid a heavy price for the loss after losing Stanley Waqa with what appears to be a serious knee injury during the first half while Adrian Davis could be in strife for a first-half incident that saw him placed on report for dangerous contact on the Cutters kicker, Blake Wallace.
The Cutters dominated the opening exchanges, particularly targeting Penrith’s right edge defence and it came as no surprise when ex-Panther Junior Vaivai gave Illawarra a 4-0 lead after six minutes.
The Cutters were buoyed by the early score and bustled the Panthers into numerous errors before extending their lead to 10-0 with a 22nd minute try to Adam Tuimavave-Gerrard, who barged his way over the top of Tupou Sopoaga to score out wide to the right.
An opportunistic try to Sam Scarlett four minutes before halftime cut the margin to four points after hooker Sione Katoa found some space from dummy half 35 metres out from the Cutters line before providing a miracle offload to his halfback.
Penrith came out after half time with plenty of resolve but it was Illawarra who scored first when play shifted right from 40 metres out as Green sent Kayne Brennan down the right touchline before the centre took the inside pass to score out wide. Wallace nailed the difficult conversion to extend the lead back to ten points.
To their credit, Penrith hit back minutes later with a try to Chris Smith after Katoa shaped to start a left shift play that would have seen Smith used as a decoy but instead opted to provide the rangy forward with a short pass that allowed him to storm through a stagnant Cutters defensive line and with Davis’ conversion trailed by four.
In the ensuing set, the Panthers scored again with a long-range try started by Ben Murdoch-Masila and finished off by Kieran Moss. Murdoch-Masila burst through the Cutters’ left edge defence from inside his own 20 metres and offloaded to Aiono who passed back to the second-rower. Moss was on the spot to take the final pass 30 metres from the line and give Penrith a sudden 18-16 lead.
Illawarra kept their composure and quickly regained the lead in the 61st minute. A long run deep into Panthers territory by Tekina Vailea put the Cutters on the front foot and a quick shift to the right created the overlap for Green to score his second try.
Play ebbed and flowed over the remaining period of the game but Illawarra’s defence stood firm when it mattered most to record a deserved and much needed 22-18 win.
Penrith now face off against the competition leaders, Mounties at Pepper Stadium next Saturday in what shapes as a crucial game in the race for the minor premiership while the Cutters travel to Newcastle the following day looking to further consolidate their position in the top eight.
Illawarra Cutters 22 (N Green 2 J Vaivai A Tuimavave-Gerrard tries; B Wallace 3 goals) def Penrith Panthers 18 (S Scarlett, C Smith, K Moss tries; A Davis 3 goals)