Panthers confound critics in win over Bulldogs
They were meant to capitulate, having supposedly already run their race. They had lost their skipper and halfback for the rest of the season, and their difficult run home was meant to see them unravel over the final six weeks of the regular season.
The Panthers were done with, apparently.
But the character of Ivan Cleary's no-nonsense football team came to the fore against Canterbury on Friday night, overcoming injuries to Elijah Taylor and Bryce Cartwright to topple the Bulldogs 22-16 at ANZ Stadium.
Granted, Canterbury were hard done by. They could have easily gone into half time with a two-try lead, but they had a number of contentious video refereeing decisions go against them in front of a furious crowd of 11,832.
The Panthers and Bulldogs came into the game holding on to third and fourth positions respectively, with the loser knowing full well they were likely to drop out of the top four if they didn't buck a two-game losing streak.
Josh Reynolds' return from suspension for his first game since Origin III did little to help the stuttering Bulldogs, who could drop to as low as sixth on the ladder by the end of the weekend after three straight defeats.
Having already lost Peter Wallace for the rest of the season with a knee injury suffered in last week's loss to Cronulla, the news got even worse for Ivan Cleary when two more players joined the club's rehabilitation ward
Taylor suffered the same injury as Wallace, tearing his anterior cruciate ligament stretching out to catch a pass in the first half, while rookie Cartwright injured his ankle under the tackle of Greg Eastwood.
The Bulldogs were livid with the officials after they had three tries controversially disallowed by video referees Steve Clark and Ben Galea in the first half.
The first proved costly, with Chase Stanley leaving the field with a dislocated shoulder after the video referees couldn't find enough evidence to overturn the on-field try decision as the centre dived over in the corner.
In a drama-plagued 15 minute period, Corey Thompson was then denied in the opposite corner after the video referees deemed Reni Maitua had obstructed Jamal Idris.
The small but vocal crowd then erupted when Tim Lafai was denied what looked like a legitimate try, however the video referees found separation between the hand and ball on its way to the ground.
But coach Des Hasler has bigger problems to worry about then the officials, with his side showing little energy and rhythm at a time of year they should be hitting their straps.
It was a push and shove between Michael Ennis and Soward that led to a Penrith's first points, with James Segeyaro burrowing his way over from close range to give the visitors a 6-0 advantage.
In a cruel blow for the already injury-ravaged Panthers, Taylor was taken from the field on a stretcher but it did little to cripple their defence, holding out the Bulldogs - who were denied three tries - for the entire first half.
But the video referee was a lot kinder to the Panthers in the second half, unable to find a reason to deny Segeyaro his second after he cleaned up the crumbs from a Soward grubber that Sam Kasiano was unable to control.
A sweeping backline play then led to more Panthers points, with Josh Mansour scoring his 12th try of the season in his first game back from an ankle injury, before Matt Moylan crossed to make it a 22-0 scoreline.
Tim Lafai, Kasiano and Trent Hodkinson all crossed late but it was to no avail, with the Bulldogs left searching for answers ahead of their clash against the Broncos in Brisbane next Friday night.
Penrith Panthers 22 (J Segeyaro 2 J Mansour M Moylan tries J Soward 3 goals) Canterbury Bulldogs 16 (T Hodkinson S Kasiano T Lafai tries T Hodkinson 2 goals) at ANZ Stadium. Referee: Matt Cecchin, David Munro. Crowd: 11,832
Sydney Morning Herald