Comeback Panthers break Eels hearts
A hamstring injury to Origin centre Michael Jennings opened a defensive weakness for the Panthers to race in three quick second half tries to come back from 14-0 down in a thrilling 22-18 win over local rivals Parramatta at Pepper Stadium.
The Eels exploded out of the blocks with three quick tries against a stunned Panthers outfit but with a host of backline stars already unavailable the injury to Jennings shortly before half-time saw coach Brad Arthur once again forced to use back-rowers out wide and an alert home side took full advantage, running three tries down the Eels' right edge shortly after half time.
The entire match was played at a furious pace and an Eels side that has suffered a crisis in the playmaking stocks with all of Corey Norman, Kieran Foran, Brad Takairangi, Luke Kelly and Mitch Cornish injured or suspended had to blood winger Clint Gutherson in the halves alongside the recently returned Jeff Robson – and the early signs were brilliant.
Gutherson was one of the best on field, showing a mature array of passing, kicking and running that bodes well for his long term future as a fullback or five eighth and he scored or helped set up all of his team's first three tries inside 16 minutes.
A momentum shift saw the home side roar back in the second half after holding just 34 per cent of possession in the opening 40 and despite a mixed night from five-eighth Bryce Cartwright a monumental game from Origin winger Josh Mansour (238 metres and 13 tackle breaks) helped the home side finish over the top of the brave but battered rivals in the second half.
An early onslaught led by the blue and gold forwards shell-shocked a Penrith side that seemed to come out of the sheds 10 minutes slower than their opponents.
Some blistering runs from props Tim Mannah and Daniel Alvaro (who came on in the first minute when Danny Wicks was taken for a concussion check) set the platform and both registered early line breaks.
Utility back Clint Gutherson had a blistering start to his halves career at NRL level with a try and some lovely passes and kicks while centre Michael Jennings picked up where he left off after Wednesday night's Origin-winning try with some searing first half runs before a hamstring strain ended his night early and forced the Eels into shifting forwards out wide yet again.
The first try came in just the second minute off the back of an early penalty against the home side and Alvaro's line break from a nice Robson pass to set the scene, before a nicely held up pass from Gutherson to Gordon put Bureta Faraimo over.
Prodigious youngster Bevan French added another try to his burgeoning tally when he swooped in on a Gutherson grubber in the 14th minute and bagged a double in the shadows of half time from a Robson cross field bomb.
After 25 minutes the Panthers had completed just three sets (out of seven) versus 11 of 12 for the Eels but the momentum began to turn shortly after when the home side was awarded a pair of back-to-back penalties and a Peter Wallace pass sent Reagan Campbell-Gillard crashing over.
From 18-6 down at the break Penrith took huge advantage of the absence of Jennings, which forced a reshuffle on the Parramatta right fringe with Beau Scott defending at centre inside French.
Josh Mansour, Bryce Cartwright and Tyrone Peachey all sliced through a disorganised blue and gold right edge in a 14-minute period that forced Brad Arthur to move Manu Ma'u across the field and Kenny Edwards to left centre with Scott returning to the middle of the field but the damage was done and at 22-18 up the Panthers had all the running.
The final 20 minutes of the contest were even more frantic than the first 20, if that were possible. A Gutherson line break saw him held up over the line by some furious last-ditch defence; the Eels were bundled into touch on both edges of the ground; Josh Mansour somehow ran a Robson grubber from his own dead-ball line back into the field of play under huge pressure; Gordon was tormented by a series of monstrous floating Nathan Cleary bombs and both teams hung on for grim life.
A few late chances for the Eels fell just short though in what was eventually a scoreless second half that effectively ends their slim hopes of an unlikely 2016 finals appearance – with Penrith now back to equal seventh on the ladder (ninth including for-and-against).
Penrith Panthers 22 (Campbell-Gillard, Peachey, Cartwright, Mansour tries; Cleary 3 goals) defeated Parramatta Eels 18 (French 2, Faraimo, Gutherson tries; Gordon goal) at Pepper Stadium. Half time: Eels 18-6. Crowd: 15,251.