Panthers eliminate Sea Eagles in finals upset
The Panthers proved lightning does not strike twice after they atoned for last week's shellacking at Lottoland to knock Manly out of the finals series with a 22-10 win in a spiteful clash at Allianz Stadium on Saturday night.
In what's quickly turning into one of the game's great rivalries, Penrith bounced back from a 28-12 loss at the hands of Manly just seven days ago with Anthony Griffin's men getting their revenge in style in the latest epic instalment of what's been an unprecedented 2017 finals series.
A sloppy start to the game quickly turned into a slugfest that was dominated by heavy collisions and missed opportunities, with Panthers utility Bryce Cartwright standing tall to win his side the game when scores were locked at 10-all in the final few minutes.
A crazy game was always going to be decided by an absurd play and in the end it was the Panthers who benefited from a freakish deflection as Cartwright's seemingly ill-conceived grubber out of dummy-half hit a Manly leg and then rebounded off Tyrone Peachey who played to the whistle and scored.
The decision was sent upstairs as a try, and despite replays suggesting the ball might have brushed Peachey's arm, the Bunker couldn't find any conclusive evidence to overturn the decision.
Manly tried desperately to draw level but an error by Akuila Uate near his own try-line proved their undoing as Cartwright iced his best game of the season with a soft try out wide to seal Penrith's passage to Week Two of the finals.
Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary has made a habit of playing above his age and the teenager continued to wow his admirers with a stunning performance highlighted by a level of control with his kicking game that even the best playmakers would have been proud of.
It'll be a tough night of soul-searching for the Sea Eagles who came into the game as warm favourites but couldn't match it with their opponents who replaced their usual flair with grit and determination.
If Manly thought they would roll through the Panthers as they did last week, they had another thing coming as Jake Trbojevic dropped the ball in the opening set and then Martin Taupau picked up the Steeden in an offside position to gift Cleary an easy two points.
With so much on the line, neither side was able to settle as Tyrone May made an error from the kick-off and Darcy Lussick was penalised for taking out Cleary's legs as he hoofed the ball downfield in a sloppy start to the game.
Even the stars were coming up with uncharacteristic mistakes as Tom Trbojevic dropped a Cleary bomb while Tyrone Peachey spilt the ball after the Panthers had camped themselves on Manly's line for close to five minutes.
It was somewhat fitting that an error would lead to the game's first try as Dallin Watene-Zelezniak put down a difficult pass with his side deep on the attack, allowing Matt Wright to bring the ball within 20 metres of Manly's line.
From the next play, Trbojevic summed things up and chipped to the corner and found an unmarked Dylan Walker who strolled over to score; something you couldn't have scripted after his banter with Panthers players on the field last week.
Unperturbed by the setback, Penrith reasserted their territorial dominance and finally cracked the Sea Eagles line when Cleary's grubber cannoned into the upright and straight into the path of Bryce Cartwright who did well to pick up the ball and plant it in one motion before Cleary potted another penalty goal to give Anthony Griffin's men a 10-4 lead at the break.
The Sea Eagles suffered a huge blow when back-rower Curtis Sironen limped off with a hamstring injury and things didn't get much better when Walker was denied a second for being offside as he chased through a Blake Green grubber.
Things looked to have turned for Trent Barrett's men when a pair of Daly Cherry-Evans kicks led to an Akuila Uate four-pointer, but Manly's celebrations were short-lived as the Bunker ruled the winger had failed to ground the ball in the process of scoring.
Manly fans could have been excused for thinking this simply wasn't going to be their night, but their pessimism quickly turned to joy when former Panther Lewis Brown broke through a flimsy attempted tackle to level it up with 17 minutes left to play.
Momentum was with the Sea Eagles but it would count for little as Cartwright took the game by the scruff of the neck to set up a date with the Brisbane Broncos next week.
Penrith Panthers 22 (Bryce Cartwright 2, Tyrone Peachey tries; Nathan Cleary 5 goals) eliminated Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles 10 (Dylan Walker, Lewis Brown tries; Matt Wright 1 goal) at Allianz Stadium. Half-time: Panthers 10-4. Crowd: 15,408.