The Dragons’ juggernaut rolls on, having overcome a reinvigorated Panthers outfit that showed plenty of class and physicality before a packed CUA Stadium on a chilly Friday night.
Despite the loss the Panthers were left clinging to fifth spot on the NRL ladder when other weekend results fell their way.
But the win came at a price for the Dragons, who will lose three key players for a total of four weeks’ suspension.
The Red V looked like they would make a cakewalk of proceedings, scooting to a 6-0 lead after Ben Creagh made a customary left-fringe charge from close range to break the Panthers’ defence like a stale lunch roll in just the third minute. They dominated possession and field position for the opening quarter and looked capable of scoring from anywhere but the Panthers stiffened and repelled wave after wave of their attacks.
In the 22nd minute Matt Elliott’s men countered after a Jamie Soward bomb, winger Michael Gordon racing 45 metres to set them up for a raid deep in the Dragons’ quarter. But their chances ended when Trent Waterhouse ran an inside angle but failed to grasp Paul Aiton’s delayed pass.
Likewise, Frank Pritchard managed a great offload to Frank Puletua in the 34th minute but the big no.8 grassed the opportunity with the line open just 20 metres away and the cover only semi-converging.
They were costly mistakes.
The Dragons increased their urgency and pounded the Panthers’ line. With three minutes before halftime Jeremy Smith scored the softest try of the decade, strolling over under the posts untouched from dummy-half.
The Panthers hit back straight after the break; a poor Soward clearing kick saw Panthers’ fullback Jarrod Sammut tackled on the red-and-whites’ 40-metre line on the kick return. On tackle six Panthers halfback Luke Lewis received the ball two off the ruck 10 metres out, faked to pass and took on the line where Ben Hornby and Matt Cooper couldn’t stop him from grounding. That made it 12-6 and the Panthers were storming back into the contest.
The Game Swung When… In the 46th minute the Panthers had a costly ‘No Try’ ruling go against them. Brett Morris failed to grasp a bomb in goal, a host of Panthers also contesting the jump. The ball spilled sideways, was clearly touched by Morris, then rolled sideways before Luke Lewis managed to get a hand on it to claim a try. But after countless reviews video ref Steve Clark was satisfied that Panther bencher Maurice Blair had got the first forward touch.
Just a few minutes later, with the Panthers swarming, the tide-turner: the Mountain Men’s movement broke down and Jamie Soward busted their line 30 metres out from his own line. The playmaker backed his speed and guile against Panthers fullback Jarrod Sammut down the right side, propping a little in-and-away and leaving Sammut grasping at nothing. At 18-6 the Dragons looked and felt safe.
Had To Be Seen To Be Believed… In the 45th minute Darius Boyd leapt high while retreating to take a speccy mark that would have done any AFL star proud. (Hope no AFL types read that or he’ll be gone too.)
A full moon at Panthers HQ in the 71st minute when big Wendell Sailor was ‘dacked’ in a tackle by Nathan Smith, dragging his defender and his shorts below his buttocks for several metres. Ever the showman Wendell pulled ’em up and waved to the crowd.
Frank Puletua’s poor read defending on his line resulted in a laughably easy try to Jeremy Smith. Laughable as in embarrassing laughable.
Who Was Hot… Dean Young (37 tackles, 87 receives) was busy as Wendell Sailor. Wendell Sailor (19 runs for 173 metres) was busy as Ben Creagh (17 hit-ups for 124 metres plus 29 tackles). Jamie Soward had just an average game but scored a great 75-metre try. Jeremy Smith made a welcome return with three line breaks and five tackle breaks.
For the Panthers, Luke Lewis (four tackle breaks, three offloads and a line break) picked up where he left off nine weeks ago before he broke a toe. He was a constant threat with his feigning ball plays.
Panthers’ left centre Brad Tighe made some great defensive reads to shut down the Soward-Sailor combination out wide.
Who Was Not… The Panthers were guilty of going to ground with the footy on the last tackle on four occasions. Not good enough.
The Dragons threw a host of forward passes at the ruck and in interchange play; they cost their side momentum and points.
Also, the Dragons missed a whopping 40 tackles.
Bad Boys… Several offenders: Shane Elford was placed on report for a high tackle on Matt Cooper in the sixth minute but escaped further action.
No such luck Justin Poore, who was pinged for a dangerous lifting tackle on Elford just seven minutes later – he was later hit with a Grade 2 Dangerous Throw charge and faces a fortnight out with an early guilty plea.
Poore will be joined on the sideline by utility forward Matt Prior and centre Beau Scott, who were charged with Grade 1 Dangerous Throws; they’ll be out a week.
Refs Watch… Gavin Badger and Ashley Klein blew few penalties early – which was admirable and made for a fast-paced game. But when the 26 players on the field started to take advantage of their leniency they should have wielded the rod and gained a bit of authority back. But they didn’t.
Consequently attacking sides walked metres off the mark and both sides were miles offside in their defensive lines and at marker.
Give the players an inch, they’ll take a mile.
NRL.com Best & Fairest… 3 points – Ben Creagh (Dragons): Really hitting his straps week in, week out. A constant menace out wide with a stride bigger than Weekend Hustler’s; 2 points – Wendell Sailor (Dragons): Two offloads and six tackle breaks to go with a stack of territory. Big Dell has matured into a 35-year-old former Australian rep who knows his limitations but refuses to accept them. Thank God for that because Wendell is a fresh breeze in the NRL; 1 point – Luke Lewis (Panthers): The Panthers are a show of doing some damage deep into the semis with this guy running their plays.
Dragons 25 (J Smith 2, J Soward, B Creagh tries; J Soward 4 goals, field goal) def Panthers 6 (L Lewis try; M Gordon goal) at CUA Stadium. Crowd: 19,987.