Raiders bound for Melbourne after Panthers win
The Canberra Raiders have held off a fast-finishing Panthers side to advance to their first preliminary final in the NRL era courtesy of a 22-12 win at GIO Stadium.
The hosts controlled the contest from the get-go with bruising hits in defence, powerful running and an endless supply of offloads to set up a showdown with the Storm in Melbourne next Saturday night.
Things looked good for the Raiders as they raced out to an 18-0 lead before the Panthers showed their fighting spirit to close within six points, only to have their hopes of a comeback cruelled by two late Jarrod Croker penalty goals.
Spurred on by a powerful rendition of the Viking Clap, the Raiders dominated the early exchanges courtesy of some inspiring contributions from veteran Sia Soliola to set the tone.
The signs were ominous for Penrith from the outset when Nathan Cleary sent his first kick of the night dead, and despite surviving several early scares, their luck was always going to run out soon.
It was almost fitting that first points went to Blake Austin, with the returning five-eighth putting on a trademark show-and-go to cross next to the posts to spark an impromptu Viking Clap from the Canberra faithful.
Raiders skipper Jarrod Croker almost 'stole' a try in the 25th minute when he pinched the ball from Bryce Cartwright and planted the ball down, but the on-field officials and the Bunker agreed that it was a two-man tackle and therefore a Penrith penalty.
With possession running two-to-one in the opening quarter it was a miracle that the Raiders were only six points in front, and just like they did against the Bulldogs last week, the Panthers fed off their defence to work their way back into the contest.
At least that's what it looked like until the unstoppable force known simply as 'Leipana' combined to grab Canberra's second try of the night five minutes before the break.
Having threatened the defensive line all game, Joey Leilua finally broke into space down the right edge before putting in a perfectly-weighted grubber for Jordan Rapana to touch down to equal the club record of 22 tries in a season.
Trailing by 12 points at the break, the Panthers needed to set the tone inside the first 10 minutes if they wanted to extend their season into next week.
Unfortunately for the men from the foot of the mountains, the second stanza couldn't have started any worse as Sitaleki Akauola was penalised for a high shot from the kick-off, Josh Hodgson earned a repeat set and then Croker crashed over all inside three minutes.
It should have been 24-0 from the very next set when fullback Jack Wighton broke into the backfield with support on his outside, but the Raiders fullback couldn't get his timing right and sent the final pass forward to Edrick Lee with the line wide open.
Having been starved of any opportunities in attack for the first 58 minutes, the Panthers finally got on the scoreboard near the hour-mark when a Matt Moylan speculator sent Tyrone Peachey over to give them a sniff.
The smell grew stronger five minutes later when Dallin Watene-Zelezniak finished off some frantic final-play football to dive over, and when Nathan Cleary nailed his second sideline conversion of the evening, it was suddenly back to a six-point game.
With momentum driving them on, none of the 21,498 in attendance would have been surprised to see the Panthers score again, but against the run of play, the Raiders put the game beyond doubt via the left boot of Croker after James Fisher-Harris was penalised for a high tackle on Aidan Sezer.
Another penalty goal on the stroke of full-time sealed the 10-point win to keep Canberra's hopes of a first premiership in 22 years alive.
Canberra Raiders 22 (Blake Austin, Jordan Rapana, Jarrod Croker tries; Jarrod Croker 5 goals) defeated Penrith Panthers 12 (Tyrone Peachey, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak tries; Nathan Cleary 2 goals) at GIO Stadium. Half-time: 12-0 Raiders. Crowd: 21,498.