An injury-ravaged Penrith side overcame a horror start to courageously defeat Mounties 30-22 and re-join a four-way race for the minor premiership.
A win for the defending premiers looked anything but possible after Mounties shell-shocked the Panthers with three tries in the opening 12 minutes.
The win not only secures Penrith’s spot in the finals but was arguably their gutsiest win in 2015 given Garth Brennan’s side featured no less than five eligible Holden Cup players up against a Mounties side bristling with plenty of NRL experience, despite the late withdrawal of Mitch Cornish.
An already under-strength Penrith side was dealt a further blow with the withdrawal of experienced back-rowers Tupou Sopoaga and Ben Murdoch-Masila, which allowed Holden Cup back-rower Corey Harawira-Naera to play 80 minutes in his VB NSW Cup debut, while Adam Docker was also a welcome late inclusion for the Panthers.
A Maliko Filino offload from a kick regather ended in disaster when Brenko Lee intercepted to race 80 metres to give Mounties the early 6-0 lead.
A penalty soon after allowed Mounties to double their lead when Josh McCrone put Jeff Lynch into a half gap before brilliantly offloading inside to Sam Duggan to score from close range.
Another penalty allowed Mounties to score again from inside Penrith’s 20-metre zone when a quick shift right allowed Jeremy Hawkins to get the better of Penrith’s left edge defence to dive over in the corner.
Eddie Aiono opened the Panthers’ account three minutes later with a try in the corner after good lead up work from Kieran Moss and Brent Naden.
Another penalty allowed Penrith to cut the gap to four after 25 minutes when Sam Scarlett took advantage of a distracted defensive line in a midfield scuffle, to score from close range.
Despite losing Adrian Davis for the game with suspected facial injury, Penrith remarkably took the lead shortly before halftime when Chris Smith stormed onto a Scarlett short pass to crash over from 10 metres out.
It wasn’t the start the Panthers were hoping for in the second half when a loose carry from Andy Saunders allowed Joe Rokoqo to crash through several defenders from close range to give Mounties the lead once again.
The Panthers levelled the scores through some sustained possession inside the Mounties’ 20-metre zone as five-eighth Sione Katoa’s pin-point cross field found an unmarked Filino to regather and crash over in the corner, before an easy penalty goal to Harawira-Naera saw Penrith reclaim the lead.
In a severe blow, Rodney Coates and Brendan Attwood joined Davis on the sidelines with game-ending injuries while Andy Saunders came off the field with concussion, leaving the Panthers with zero interchange players at one point.
Frustrations boiled over for former team-mates Kyle O’Donnell and Sam Anderson with both players placed on report for separate incidents in quick succession and were sin-binned after their scuffle.
Penrith adapted to the 12-a-side affair, sealing the game nine minutes from time through a try to Moss after receiving back-to-back penalties in their 20-metre attacking zone.
Mounties applied the pressure to Penrith over the closing minutes but the home side held on for a crucial victory that sees them return to the top as co-leaders of the VB NSW Cup.
Penrith Panthers 30 (E Aiono, S Scarlett, C Smith, M Filino, K Moss tries; C Harawira-Naera 5 goals) def Mounties 22 (B Lee, S Duggan, J Hawkins, J Rokoqo tries; S Duggan 2 goals J McCrone 1 goal) at Pepper Stadium.