A serious ankle injury to former Kiwis utility Dene Halatau overshadowed an impressive display by Wests Tigers, who ran away with a 32-8 win against Penrith at Kirkham Oval in Sydney last night.
Halatau has been ruled out for at least four months after breaking his left ankle in the 58th minute when he fell awkwardly in a tackle.
A three-try blitz in the opening 20 minutes allowed the Tigers to race to a 14-0 lead but the injury to their returning star Halatau was the talking point afterwards.
Starting at dummy-half before switching to the back row, Halatau was solid in his first appearance for the Tigers since 2009.
''Dene has broken his ankle and torn ligaments in his ankle. It looks like it is at least a four-month injury,'' Tigers coach Mick Potter said.
''It's unfortunate and he will probably get it operated on during the week, if not next week.
''He leaves a hole for us. He can play anywhere from hooker, five-eighth, in the back-row, at lock. He is one of those valuable pieces of the puzzle that we are going to miss.
''Someone else will have to do the job now; someone else will have to fill the void.''
The Tigers, led by Braith Anasta and a damaging Chris Lawrence, were strong as both sides went into the match minus a host of stars. Winger Pat Richards made his presence felt instantly, with a spiralling kick-off to start the game landing in the hands of a Tigers teammate to put his team on the attack.
And the Panthers paid by not touching the ball for the opening five minutes and conceding a try to Lawrence. The centre benefited from a back-line shift from James Tedesco to open the scoring.
The Panthers never found their groove throughout the match in front of 5042 people - reduced by one when a streaker interrupted play midway through the second half before being arrested.
With halves Jamie Soward and Peter Wallace watching on, Penrith lacked direction and their big men struggled to contain a rampant Tigers forward pack.
They failed to capitalise on their only first-half chance when a Matt Moylan tap-on pass to big winger Etonia Nabuli was ruled forward as Nabuli crossed the try line.
Anasta - replacing Benji Marshall at five-eighth - threatened with a few 40/20 kicks early and eventually his boot took control for Curtis Sironen to score.
Winger David Nofoaluma capitalised on a poor defensive read from the Penrith outside men to swoop from a back-line shift off a scrum to extend the Tigers' lead to 14 after 19 minutes.
Prop James Gavet added their next points four minutes after half-time as the Panthers continued to struggle to finish their sets in a positive fashion.
Fullback Moylan made a 40-metre bust, slicing through the Tigers defence before linking with Josh Mansour. When Mansour was pulled down just metres short of the try line, Tigers winger Nofoaluma was sin-binned for holding on for too long.
When Kevin Naiqama fumbled over the try line - free from Tigers defenders - the Panthers seemed destined for a scoreless start to their year. But they managed two tries from kicks with Nabuli and Isaac John scoring. The Tigers added more points through English Super League recruits Keith Lulia and Cory Paterson.
Panthers coach Ivan Cleary was disappointed with Penrith's effort.
''We got off on the wrong foot, they came out pretty hard and it was tough going from then on, especially when you have a lot of guys who haven't played a lot of first grade,'' he said.
''In the end, it was a hit-out for us, a few of the guys got their first games under their belt but we were outplayed.''
- Sydney Morning Herald
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