The Panthers held on for a tight victory over the Bulldogs after leading 24-0 at one stage. Here are five key points from the Sunday afternoon thriller.
Hasler sees "trend" in Bulldogs' poor attitude with the ball
They committed seven errors in the first half and then exacerbated their problems by being caned 8-3 in the penalty count. It's an issue that coach Des Hasler believes is a recurring theme for his side.
"I thought the first half we probably tended to shoot ourselves in the foot a lot. Penrith didn't have to do much to get down the field. I think at one stage the possession we had about 35 percent and our attitude with the ball was poor," he said.
"We weren't responsible enough with the ball, which is probably a trend that we've had a lot within the side. So it's something that's really hinders us, and it's something that we really need to adjust."
Asked why he thought it was a trend, he said: "It's something that we need to address. You get a certain amount of possession – you've got to use it. You've got to hang onto it."
Cleary shows why size doesn't always matter
Much of the pre-game talk centred on the size of the Bulldogs pack, particularly a four-headed monster bench that weighed in almost 50 kilograms heavier than their opponents. But smart interchanges around the ruck and timely offloads from Penrith's smaller forwards tired the Bulldogs big men and allowed the home side to make easy in-roads up field. In the first half alone, the Panthers produced eight offloads to the Bulldogs' one.
Asked what game plan he set to combat the Bulldogs' size, Cleary deadpanned: "A lot of weights."
"I guess the heat was always going to be a factor. But it's really just about controlling the ball. Whether you're playing the Dogs or anyone else – that's key. For the most part, I thought it was going well. But they just showed at the end there, when they get the ball and momentum, they're hard to stop."
Familiarity wins out over fitness
Cleary admitted he was concerned about his side's ability to sustain their energy levels for the entire 80 minutes after a disrupted pre-season where almost half his squad underwent surgery. But the Panthers coach said the side's familiarity with each other was a crucial element in their impressive first hour that took the game away from their opposition.
"I had a bit of a question mark over whether we could match up on a hot day for 80 minutes. We had a lot of players came back from surgery through the off-season," he said.
"In terms of our continuity, that was really good. That's probably the bonus out of the whole thing – we don't have too many new players. We were probably happy to take the two points out of that 65 minutes, but the Dogs weren't into that. They never are. But this time of the year two points means a lot. I'm pretty happy to get that."
Hasler can't help himself – calls for referees press conference
A new edict sent out by the NRL this year – all agreed on by the 16 NRL coaches – said coaches were not allowed to comment at all on referees and/or any calls. But that didn't stop Hasler from calling out referees boss Tony Archer and his whistleblowers to face the firing line after a game.
"You know what you should do, get Tony Archer in here and his sidekick and ask them what they thought about the game, because they had a pretty big input into today. That'll be a better press conference, that's for sure," Hasler said.
Fans vote with their feet on Sunday afternoon football
The late 4pm start was made in conjunction with the new live Sunday broadcast on Channel Nine, but that didn't stop fans from filling the house at Penrith. Almost 19,000 rocked up for the preliminary final re-match, and Panthers centre Jamal Idris said it was an incredible occasion.
"It was bloody good. Pepper Stadium is one of those stadiums where the fans are so close to the field. You can actually feel the aura of it," he said.
"You play at grounds like ANZ and they're so far away and you can't hear them. Right here they're on your shoulders. You love when you hear someone heckle you. It pumps you up more."
Bulldogs five-eighth Josh Reynolds could vouch for that. Midway through the second half he turned towards the eastern grandstand and shared a short conversation with some hospitable onlookers.
"Just the usual," Reynolds said.
"I'm used to it mate. It's all part of it. They can say whatever they want. In the end, it doesn't faze me."