Penrith have survived a miracle comeback from the Bulldogs to open their Telstra Premiership season with a nervy 24-18 cliff-hanger at Pepper Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
The Panthers looked headed for a surprising shutout when winger Dallin Watene-Zelezniak's second try of the match gave Penrith what looked to be an unassailable 24-0 lead after 52 minutes.
But three Bulldogs tries in the space of seven minutes set up a grandstand finish between last year's preliminary finalists, before the Panthers staved off two final sets on their line to secure the win and exact some revenge for being knocked out one game short of the grand final.
"The reality is in today's game if you lose momentum... they had nothing to lose. When you're playing the Bulldogs when they've got nothing to lose, there's not too many teams more dangerous," Penrith coach Ivan Cleary said post-game.
"Big side coming off the bench, everything seemed to be going their way at the time. My issue is I guess allowing that momentum to change in the first place. But, we'll move on and hopefully learn from the experience without having to lose."
Panthers press conference - Ivan Cleary
Bulldogs press conference - Des Hasler
Panthers v Bulldogs: Five key points
Bulldogs prop Tim Browne seemed to have notched a consolation try when he broke through off a James Graham short ball in the 72nd minute, and Curtis Rona's first try for the club was only supposed to have given the scoreline respectability.
But when prize recruit Brett Morris finished off a 60-metre try to score under the posts in the 77th minute, the Bulldogs were on the verge of forcing an unlikely period of golden point.
In the end they fell six points short and will rue a horrific opening half that gave the Panthers a 14-0 lead at the break.
"I thought the first half we probably tended to shoot ourselves in the foot a lot," Bulldogs coach Des Hasler said.
"Penrith didn't have to do much to get down the field. I think at one stage the possession we had about 35 per cent and our attitude with the ball was poor."
A penalty against Bulldogs second-rower Josh Jackson for putting pressure on the neck of Panthers debutant George Jennings both landed him in hot water and, more importantly, gave the home side the best chance for first blood.
And Penrith had no problems drawing it, utilising the quick hands of Matt Moylan and Dean Whare in the 12th minute and sending winger Watene-Zelezniak over in the corner.
The second-year Panther could have quickly gone from hero to villain however, when he pushed a marker over in front of his own sticks in the 22nd minute that instigated a mini-brawl. But the Bulldogs were unable to turn it into points.
Penrith, on the other hand, were able to take full advantage of theirs. Keeping on with their fast-twitch game plan that netted them eight offloads to one in the first half, the hosts kept the bigger Bulldogs pack on the back foot in their own half and then on the scoreboard, when Soward's 20-metre cut-out pass found Jennings for his first NRL career try.
More ill-discipline from the visitors – they were pinged 8-3 in the penalty count in the opening 40 minutes – allowed Soward to give his side a handy 14-0 lead into the break when Josh Reynolds was penalised for a dangerous tackle.
There was nothing the Bulldogs could do to prevent Penrith's opening try of the second half however, when a Bryce Cartwright offload put James Segeyaro into space and the Panthers hooker dashed 30 metres to score in the corner.
Soward's fourth-straight conversion of the afternoon gave the home team a commanding 20-0 lead.
Penrith extended their lead when Watene-Zelezniak collected a Peter Wallace cross field kick and shrugged off opposite winger Curtis Rona to score in the 52nd.
Penrith 24 (Watene-Zelezniak 2, Jennings, Segeyaro tries; Soward 4 goals) def. Canterbury-Bankstown 18 (Browne, Rona, B. Morris tries; Hodkinson 3 goals). On report: Josh Jackson (unnecessary pressure on neck, 11th min). Crowd: 18,814. Half-time: Penrith 14-0.