The Penrith Panthers have ended their regular season in fine fashion ahead of the Intrust Super Premiership NSW Finals Series, defeating the Wentworthville Magpies 44-14 at Ringrose Park.
Wentworthville came into the clash with little but pride to play for; Illawarra's Round 25 draw with the Bulldogs on Saturday robbed them of a chance to push for an eighth-place finish to the regular season. In their final game of 2017 they were to be almost unchanged - only Josh Hoffman was replaced by Scott Schulte - while the Panthers welcomed Tony Satini, Moses Leota, Cowen Epere and Oliver Clark into the fold. Five-eighth Jarome Luai was immense for the visitors, getting a well-deserved hat-trick and influencing several other Penrith tries.
Less than two minutes had passed when the Panthers opened the scoring, with fullback Tom Eisenhuth and Dean Whare linking up to send Maika Sivo over to score. Nicholls conversion from out wide was waved away and Penrith led 4-0 early.
The Magpies hit back almost immediately in a sign of a high-scoring contest, with Nathan Davis hitting the line off a short ball to open the home side's account. That came after two excruciatingly near misses to Dane Aukafolau and Honeti Tuha, with Davis also making no mistake with the boot to push his side in front.
That two-point lead looked to be extended just minutes later when Schulte found himself in space down the right-hand touch line, passing inside to Jeff Robson who only had to fall over the try line. The veteran halfback, however, dropped the ball cold to momentarily relieve the Panthers of pressure.
Banked down the Panthers' line for much of the next 15 minutes, the Magpies seemed unlucky not to move further ahead of their opponents. Schulte looked the most likely with numerous chances, while George Jennings was also held up over the line in the opposite corner. Forced dropouts continued to flow from the boots of Robson and Troy Dargan, robbing the Panthers of any significant chance to attack.
When an error from Tuha brought the Magpies undone, Penrith looked to make them pay and a line-break from Christian Crichton almost brought a try. A try-saving tackle from Tuha then resulted in a penalty for the visitors, who peppered the Magpies' line and soon broke through via Viliame Kikau. Following their first set in Wentworthville's zone in what seemed like an age, the Panthers regained the lead and Nicholls converted the try.
With eight minutes remaining in the half, the Panthers got another chance and Luai made no mistake. The five-eighth dummied and ran himself towards the north-western corner, stepping inside to score - which Nicholls superbly converted for a 16-6 score line.
Luai was penalised late in the half for running Magpies captain Cody Nelson off the ball, giving Wentworthville a final roll of the dice in the opening stanza, but a speculative grubber was diffused comfortably to keep Penrith's 10-point lead at the break.
The second period began with the Magpies on the front foot, but a wayward ball for Robson quickly brought them undone; the halfback put the ball down for Luai to race 40 metres downfield and land the Panthers back in good field position. Three tackles later Dean Whare calmly sent the ball left to Crichton, who dived over in the corner for Penrith's fourth try.
Only three minutes later the visitors found themselves back in Wentworthville's end and Luai once again was the man to deliver the final blow. It came from a fine Tony Satini offload, with the halfback taking full advantage to make scores 26-6.
The momentum would be halted soon after when Jed Cartwright came off second best in a tackle, being helped from the field before the Magpies begun to wrestle back momentum. An end-to-end period ensued, eventually broken by a try to the Wentworthville skipper. Nelson opted to go himself from dummy-half and burrowed over for the home side's second try and a 26-10 score line.
With less than 15 minutes remaining in the contest, Kikau put his head down to charge through for his second and with the conversion from Nicholls, establish a 22-point lead. The Magpies got possession after the kick-off to look to hit back, but another Sivo line-break on the kick return got his side out of trouble. With the ball spread left, Luai once again pinned his ears back in broken play to bring up his trifecta.
Pride was still on the line in the dying minutes of the Magpies' season and Robson soon put second-rower Matt Woods into a gap, with Woods showing sheer strength and determination to score. The kick was waved away and scores were 38-14 in favour of Penrith.
With full-time looming the Panthers got one last chance to add to their tally and did so through halfback Darren Nicholls, who split the defence to put the icing on the cake. Nicholls' conversion ensured a full-time score of 44-14.
The win did not affect Penrith's final standing on the ladder and Garth Brennan's men are still set to take on the Warriors next Saturday afternoon. That shapes as a high-quality contest, with the second-placed Warriors also in fine form at the business end of the season.
Penrith Panthers 44 (J Luai 3, V Kikau 2, M Sivo, C Crichton, D Nicholls tries; D Nicholls 5 goals) def Wentworthville Magpies 14 (N Davis, C Nelson, M Woods tries; N Davis goals)