Robbie Farah was the big-name inclusion but it was his opposing hooker, Wayde Egan, who had all the big moments, leading defending premiers the Penrith Panthers from an 18-6 deficit to give them a 30-24 win at Panthers Stadium.
In sweltering 35-degree heat in Penrith, the Panthers hooker scored a double to spark their come-from behind win and was ably assisted with a two-try effort from Tom Eisenhuth, while Kaide Ellis caused plenty of problems for the Bears’ left-edge defence with his surging runs.
The Panthers’ second-half 18-4 performance ensures the defending premiers kick-start their 2018 Intrust Super Premiership NSW campaign but leaves the Bears winless after two rounds.
Both sides made key inclusions for the clash, especially the visitors with Robbie Farah, Jason Clark and Hymel Hunt all late additions to a side already boasting the likes of Kyle Turner and Braidon Burns, while Moses Leota was a welcome in for the home side.
The Bears got off to a dream start, capitalising on an early penalty to open the scoring inside three minutes when a Connor Tracey grubber kick at the line enabled second-rower Thomas Freebairn to score. With a successful conversion from out wide, North Sydney led 6-0.
But it didn’t take long for the Panthers to hit back through a try to Eisenhuth in the 11th minute. The centre scored out wide after supporting another strong run from Kaide Ellis, who exposed the HIA-mandated absence of Hymel Hunt.
North Sydney regained the lead midway through the first half when Braidon Burns was able to take advantage of some retreating Panthers edge defence to score out wide, with Mawene Hiroti again converting to restore their six-point advantage.
Penrith suffered a blow soon after when a distressed Tim Browne was assisted from the field with a suspected spleen injury.
Both hookers - Robbie Farah for the Bears and Wayde Egan for the Panthers - traded tries, both from close range in the final minutes of the half.
It appeared the Bears would have all the early running in the second half after Hiroti slotted over a 38m penalty goal after the siren, to not only push the Bears’ lead out to 20-12 at the break but also return with a one-man advantage after Jack Hetherington was sin-binned in the process.
It was Penrith, however, that opened the scoring in the second half when a quick shift right resulted in Christian Crichton crashing over in the corner, reducing the gap to just four points.
A second try from Egan, again another typical bullocking effort from dummy-half, put the Panthers in front for the first time in the game, 22-20 in the 56th minute.
North Sydney, who on the receiving end of a hefty penalty count from Briscoe, eventually lost a player of their own when Hymel Hunt was sent to the sin-bin for 10 minutes, which Penrith duly capitalised in the next set.
Tom Eisenhuth showing a great piece of skill in keeping the ball alive in play with a deft kick just as the centre appeared to be going into touch and was able to reach out to score his second try of the game to push Penrith’s lead out to eight.
A penalty goal to Chad O’Donnell gave Penrith a double-digit lead but the Bears to their credit, never gave in and were rewarded with a late try in the corner to Amanaki Veamatahau to provide the final 30-24 score in favour of the hosts.
Next up for the Panthers is a home game next Saturday at St Marys’ Stadium when they host the New Zealand Warriors, while the Bears be looking to regroup when they travel south to ShellRon Costello Oval to take on the St George Illawarra Dragons.
Penrith Panthers 30 (W Egan 2, T Eisenhuth 2, C Crichton tries; C O’Donnell 5 goals) def North Sydney 24 (T Freebairn, B Burns, R Farah, A Veamatahau tries; M Hiroti 4 goals)