Ray Lesoa has had a NSW Cup debut to remember scoring three tries and setting up the match winner for Tom Eisenhuth that has enabled Penrith to record a thrilling come-from-behind 34-28 win over a gallant Illawarra side at Pepper Stadium.
Illawarra, through a powerhouse performance from ex-Panther Eto Nabuli in what could be his final game of league, led 24-12 at half-time and 28-22 with seven minutes remaining.
But Ray Lesoa had other ideas, scoring his third and setting up Eisenhuth's try that allowed the Panthers to record their fourth win in a row to finish level on 36 points with Wyong and Mounties but third on for-and-against.
Penrith’s line-up had a vastly different feel to it this week, with Lesoa and Atonio Pelasasa both making their NSW Cup debuts while Sam Hollis and Tom Eisenhuth made long overdue returns to NSW Cup after each having had a lengthy spell in the Ron Massey Cup with Windsor.
The Cutters lost Adam Tuimavave-Gerrard and Rory O’Brien but were bolstered by the inclusion of the Fijian Flyer, who will make Queensland his home in 2016, having switched to play Super Rugby with the Reds.
Before Illawarra even had a chance to settle into their rhythm Penrith had two tries on the board courtesy of Chris Smith and Leosa to lead 12-0 and a long afternoon loomed for the Cutters.
But if Penrith dominated the first ten minutes, it was all Illawarra from there as they scored four unanswered tries throughout the remainder of the half.
The Panthers were outclassed as the Cutters’ Blake Wallace, Adam Clune and Shannon Crook tore the defence to shreds and with Nabuli’s powerhouse running game and his aerial prowess thrown in for good measure, the Cutters looked good for the win leading 24-12 at halftime.
But as they did in the first half, again Penrith crossed twice early in the second half through Leosa and Matt Eisenhuth (avoiding the nudie run in the process) to reduce the gap to two points.
The Cutters soon before an Eto Nabuli try in the left corner with fifteen minutes remaining gave Illawarra a chance to cause the boilover once more, leading 28-22.
But a Foster kick to the left corner that was brilliantly batted back by Tom Eisenhuth when it looked all but certain the ball was going to roll dead in-goal, was pounced upon by that man Lesoa to secure his hat-trick and with the sideline conversion from skipper Sione Katoa, scores were level.
The Panthers secured the win in the closing minutes when quick shift left saw Lesoa turn provider for his partner in crime Tom Eisenhuth to dive over in the corner with Katoa’s second consecutive sideline conversion sealing the win for the Panthers and leaving Illawarra heart-broken in their final game for 2015.
The Panthers now play Wyong with the venue to be confirmed next Saturday after Wyong missed out on the minor premiership by the barest of margins. The Roos will be confident going into this clash having defeated Penrith twice in the closing minutes of play earlier in the season.