Late Panthers try ends Raiders season
Penrith have exacted revenge for their 2016 finals exit by putting an end to Canberra's late finals charge with a 26-22 victory over the Raiders in a seesawing contest at GIO Stadium.
It was expected the clash would re-ignite a bitter rivalry between the two clubs in the last 18 months and the entire 80 minutes did not disappoint with both sides going end-to-end before a Tyrone May four-pointer seven minutes out from the siren secured the win.
The Panthers dominated the opening quarter of the game before the momentum swung dramatically in the Raiders' favour on the back of a 7-3 penalty count.
Despite trailing by 10 at the break, Canberra came out firing in the second half to take the lead with two converted tries inside 15 minutes.
Jack Wighton crashed his way over the line before the Raiders fullback turned defence into attack that allowed Aidan Sezer to put Joseph Tapine between Matt Moylan and Tyrone Peachey on the right edge.
A lifting tackle from Jordan Rapana on opposite number Josh Mansour handed the Panthers a sniff to steal it late and Anthony Griffin's men took advantage with May burrowing his way through from dummy half.
Canberra had a final chance to snatch victory on the siren but similar to the theme of their season, came up short with Jordan Rapana unable to provide the offload for Dave Taylor near the line.
Earlier, a four-pointer on the stroke of half-time to Josh Mansour delivered the killer blow on the break after the Raiders dominated the final quarter of the first half.
The Raiders ran out to a vocal rendition of the viking clap but were left stunned in the opening stages with Joseph Tapine coming up with an error that allowed the visitors an early chance to attack.
Some quick hands from Matt Moylan at five-eighth to Dylan Edwards sent Waqa Blake over in a comfortable fashion.
Tensions were creeping into the contest after a fast start from the Panthers and a penalty from Blake Austin allowed the visitors to stretch the lead out to eight inside 12 minutes.
The intensity suddenly lifted for the Raiders after a sluggish start with strong carries from Joey Leilua and Josh Papalii enabling Nick Cotric to dart over in the corner after Austin provided the late offload.
An error from Mansour was met with strong jeers from Rapana who were going tit-for-tat throughout the contest, but it was Mansour and the Panthers who had the last laugh to extend their lead the next set – and ultimately in the end, the game.
A spread from Cleary out to Blake early in the set paid off for Griffin's men when the Fijian international stepped inside Jarrod Croker before finding Cleary in support.
It was Cleary's 200th point of the season and now takes the 19-year-old into the Panthers' top 10 all-time point scorers and made him the youngest player to achieve the milestone.
Canberra needed to be next to respond trailing by eight and Ricky Stuart opted for the injection of Dave Taylor who immediately added the spark that was required.
Taylor charged towards the line before providing the late offload for Josh Papalii to go over for the four-pointer.
Despite managing to take the lead, the Raiders lost their way with a 69 per cent completion rate as Penrith proved too clinical with the ball.
The Panthers' seven-game winning streak is their best since their premiership-winning season in 2003 and Griffin's men will feature in back-to-back finals series for the first time since 2004.
Penrith Panthers 26 (Blake, Cleary, Mansour, May tries; Cleary 5 goals) defeated Canberra Raiders 22 (Cotric, Papalii, Wighton, Tapine tries; Croker 3 goals) at GIO Stadium. Half-time: Panthers 20-10. Crowd: 14,818.
NRL.com unofficial votes: 3 points: Josh Mansour. 2 points: Jack Wighton. 1 point: James Tamou.