THE Dragons, missing four Origin stars, muzzled the Panthers, missing three Origin stars and late withdrawal Trent Waterhouse, on a windy night in Wollongong.
With a solid southerly at their backs the red-and-whites struggled for field possession in the opening 10 minutes before back-rower Beau Scott cleaned up the spoils of a Jamie Soward bomb to score against the run of play.
A Ben Hornby four-pointer under the posts saw them sprint to a 10-nil lead after 16 minutes before Penrith struck back, five-eighth Wade Graham plucking a Luke Walsh bomb for a sideline four-pointer.
That made it 10-6 and for the second section of the opening 40 the Panthers matched motors with the home side, the whiff of an upset in the air.
But the whiff dissipated immediately after the break when big Wendell Sailor bagged the first of his two tries after a brilliant assist by stop-gap centre Chase Stanley. The no.4 hit the defensive line, raised his right arm and flicked the ball backwards, Matt Gidley-style, to the unmarked Sailor 12 metres out, who steamrolled lone defender Lachlan Coote. Jamie Soward’s sideline conversion made it 18-6.
Still, most home fans would have felt some nerves when big Panthers back-rower and stand-in captain Frank Pritchard capitalised on a poor defensive read from Beau Scott to charge over in the 55th minute, making it 18-10.
But from there the Dragons shifted into fifth gear, reeling off four entertaining and skilful tries to run away with the contest.
The Game Swung When… Trailing by eight points with a quarter of the game remaining, Panthers halfback Luke Walsh hoisted a poor, low clearing kick straight down the throat of Dragons’ fullback Jason Nightingale who counter-attacked at speed.
That very set an interchange of passing, some powerful running and nice deception from Brett Morris, Ben Hornby and Jamie Soward saw the ball head to Sailor who carried two defenders over for his second try.
When Soward’s kick from the sideline scraped through off the right upright the Dragons were safe at 24-10.
Who Was Hot… Brett Morris (183 metres, eight tackle breaks) evaded the grasp of defenders like he was covered in grease. Ben Hornby (two line breaks and 130 metres at halfback) was spirited and made good decisions. Soward (49 touches and two try assists) delivered a cool and calculated performance.
Wendell Sailor (two tries, seven tackle breaks) laid claim to buy of the year and in his current form could play beyond 2010.
Chase Stanley (two try assists) made the most of his call-up; and fringe Queensland Origin candidate Neville Costigan (six tackle breaks, a try assist, two offloads and 21 tackles) did his 2009 series aspirations a world of good as he pounded the opposition in attack and defence.
For the Panthers, Pritchard (121 metres, seven tackle breaks and a try) sparked some opportunities. Wade Graham (three offloads, two tackle breaks and a try) tried hard, as did interchange hooker Masada Iosefa (a try assist, two tackle breaks, a line break and 29 tackles).
Who Was Not… Hard to be too critical of the Panthers, who were in it for a long way before being out-muscled.
Tiny fullback Jarrod Sammut was out-leapt by equally small Ben Hornby who scored.
And tiny winger Lachlan Coote was no match for the juggernaut that is Wendell Sailor.
Had To Be Seen To Be Believed… With no score on the board in the seventh minute the Dragons threw a 35-metre, last-tackle pass from the ruck to… no-one. Jamie Soward rushed back into his own half and managed a rushed clearing kick down to the Penrith 20-metre line.
Chase Stanley fielded the first four Panthers’ kick-offs – including two excellent takes of high balls that hung in the wind as the opposition’s forward chasers closed in. Showed guts and composure.
Jarrod Sammut attempted an ambitious half-volley pick-up of a Soward clearing kick while on the run. But he fumbled it. Nice attempt though.
And with Sammut off the field when Pritchard scored, the Panthers were left without a goal-kicker. “Who wants it boys?” captain Pritchard asked. Gavin Cooper stuck up his hand. Never attempted a goal in first grade before. But was willing to give it a go. His attempt was only narrowly unsuccessful, banging into the left upright.
Refs Watch… The officials policed the ruck with vigilance and were particularly penal on markers not being square; this assisted the Panthers to make serious inroads at times, with the Dragons obeying the rules and staying out of the contest.
Elsewhere the refs and right touch judge missed a blatant Penrith knock-on at dummy-half in the 18th minute. It didn’t lead to anything, but that’s not the point.
Overall, though, a sound display by the men with the peas.
NRL.com Best & Fairest… 3 points – Brett Morris (Dragons): Must be the next in line for a Blues winger’s jersey; 2 points – Ben Hornby (Dragons): Scheming captain’s knock; 1 point – Wendell Sailor (Dragons): Enthusiastic, powerful, dependable; in the form of his rejuvenated career.
Dragons 38 (W Sailor 2, B Scott, B Hornby, N Emmett, J Soward, M Lett tries; Soward 5 goals) def Panthers 10 (W Graham, F Pritchard tries; J Sammut goal) at WIN Stadium. Crowd: 10,623.