Switching key forwards to the bench before kick off proved a masterstroke by Penrith Panthers coach Anthony Griffin after Fiji giant Viliame Kikau turned the game on its head in the second half to inspire a 24-14 win over the Parramatta Eels.
Trailing 14-6 at halftime, the Panthers dominated the second term with Kikau proving too much to handle for the Eels defence after being thrown into the fray just before the interval.
In a 35-minute stint, the 119kg forward scored a try, carried the ball 77 metres from nine runs, made five tackle breaks, one line break, one line break assist and one offload to totally transform the game after Eels halfback Mitchell Moses had controlled the opening period.
Initallly, Kikau had been selected to start the match but Griffin moved him and Kangaroos Test prop Regan Campbell-Gillard to the bench in a late change which paid dividends for the Panthers.
"Vili is really hard to handle, he is a big kid with good feet and he was on at the right time," Griffin said. "We had all the ball and we were able to feed him a bit of ball just before halftime and in that first 20 minutes of the second half so it worked out really well for us.
"I felt Regan had 60 minutes in him so I thought that would be better to be the last 60 rather than having to get him off when the game is in the balance and Vili has been going really well so I just wanted to get him out there when the game has already started, not right at the start.
Panthers fullback Dylan Edwards epitomised his side's performance after a horror first half in which he twice turned the ball over in good field position for the Eels but finished with a game high 174 metres from 13 runs, made two line breaks, a line break assist and 10 tackle breaks.
In contrast, Moses produced a near faultless start for the Eels but was unable to spark his team in the second half and spent time in the sin-bin for a professional foul.
Moses created a try-scoring opportunity for Josh Hoffman, laying on a four-pointer for the veteran Eels winger, forcing an error in defence and securing a repeat set with a perfectly weighted grubber kick.
However, Moses was forced from the field for an HIA in the 14th minute after appearing to hit his head on the ground while stopping a runaway Dylan Edwards with an ankle tap.
In his absence, five-eighth Corey Norman stepped up to take control of the game, putting the Eels ahead 10-0 in the 21st minute after selling a dummy to Panthers forward James Fisher-Harris and slicing between him and Peter Wallace to score.
Match: Panthers v Eels
Round 1 -
Venue: Panthers Stadium
- Nine Network
- LIVE PASS
The Eels scored again before Moses was cleared to return, with Hoffman getting his second try in similar fashion to his first after stand-in playmaker Brad Takairangi threw a cut-out pass in the 28th minute.
Until then, the Panthers had never been in the contest and boasted just 33 per cent of posession, with their only try-scoring opportunity failing to provide any points after Tyrone Peachey was ruled to have prevented Tepai Moeroa from being able to attempt to tackle Josh Mansour.
Replays showed Mansour had lost the ball over the tryline anyway, but the Panthers managed to get back into the game when Waqa Blake shrugged off four defenders in a 30-metre run to plant the ball over the tryline five minutes from halftime.
The second half was like a different game, with the Panthers totally dominating and the Eels unable to hang on as Kikau caused havoc.
"They had all the ball in the first half and coming in at halftime it just felt like we had more running in our legs than they did," Panthers captain Peter Wallace said. "That showed in the second half when we came out and played the way we did."
Kikau scored in the 42nd minute after trampling Eels fullback Bevan French and proving too strong for Hayne, who attempted to stop him from grounding the ball.
Weighing 119kg and standing at 195cm tall, Kikau was too powerful for the Eels to handle and Takairangi conceded a penalty by holding him down after he had beat Moses and French.
Moses was sin-binned for failing to get square at marker after making a desperate tackle on Nathan Cleary. The subsequent penalty goal by the Panthers halfback put his team ahead for the first time in the match.
A second try by Blake in the 59th minute, after Clearly sent him racing down the touchline following an Edwards break, extended the Panthers' lead to 22-14 and a later penalty goal completed the 24-14 win.