Penrith coach Ivan Cleary was disappointed his team could not deliver the knockout punch when they had the chance, but they landed enough body blows on Newcastle to win 16-14 at McDonald Jones Stadium on Saturday night.
It was Penrith’s fourth straight victory over the Knights in Newcastle dating back to 2016. They opened their account for 2019 after they dropped their home opener 20-12 against the Eels last Sunday.
A converted try by Isaah Yeo try five minutes into the second half extended Penrith’s lead to 16-8 and they always appeared to have Newcastle’s measure, but had to survive a late scare after Knights forward Mitchell Barnett scored in the 73rd minute to cut the margin to two points.
"When we got to 16-8, I really felt we could have gone on with it a bit more, but we couldn’t get that done and ended up giving me a few more grey hairs by the end of the game. But we got there in the end," Cleary said.
"We’re still trying to find our groove as a team. The boys have played together for a bit but obviously with a new coach, we're doing things slightly differently.
"Our last couple of games, including our last trial, we haven't been able to hold the ball and haven't been able to mount any pressure and we got a bit more of that tonight. Hopefully as time goes on, we can get a little bit smoother.
Match Highlights: Knights v Panthers
"You just want to get a win – your first win of the year any time. Without turning it into a must-win, it was an important win for us tonight.
"We know we need to play a lot better, and I'm sure we will, but we're definitely happy. Winning solves everything, as they say, so hopefully we can build on that one."
The game was ultimately decided by two critical plays in the same corner, late in each half.
Malakai-Watene Zelezniak, a late replacement for injured winger Josh Mansour, chased a Nathan Cleary kick into the in-goal in the 35th minute. He dived over the dead-ball line to bat it back for Frank Winterstein to score a go-ahead try for a 10-8 half-time lead.
Of equal important, as Penrith protected a 16-8 lead, diminutive playmaker James Maloney wrestled the ball loose from giant Knights winger Edrick Lee to save a certain try in the 69th minute.
"I knew when he got up that he hadn't got it down because I felt it land on me, then I actually thought he was going to move again, but then it came free," Maloney told reporters after the game.
"I knew straight away that I'd stopped it. I think he relaxed a little bit once he beat Dallin [Watene-Zelezniak] and came through, and I think he relaxed thinking he was through, so it was nice to come up with a pretty important play."
Maloney's brilliant try saver
Three minutes earlier, Maloney smashed former Roosters team-mate Connor Watson with a front-on tackle to force an error on a Newcastle kick-return to regain possession for the Panthers.
"I was at the Roosters when Connor was there so I know Connor quite well. I just said I got one up on him, so it was just a bit of friendly banter," Maloney said.
"It wasn't perfect, it was still a bit clunky, and there's still things we’ll develop and get better at. We still turned over a bit of ball and made a few errors when we were getting over the top of them.
"We had that eight-point lead and they were sort of wobbling and out on their feet.
"We probably needed to put them away and get one more try and she would have been done, so we made it a little bit harder … but it's a tough win and a gritty win and at the end of the day, these early games, you just want to wrap up two points and we did that."
Though much maligned, Cleary said Maloney was a capable defender but had some ground to make up after a few early misses, and for conceding penalties for high tackles on Lachlan Fitzgibbon and Tim Glasby.
"He probably missed his first few tonight, so he didn't start off in a great spot, and there were a couple of high tackles in there, well, apparently, but he definitely didn't shirk his task," Cleary said.
"He's a competitor, he’s been around, and he knows how to get things done, so he stepped up when he definitely needed to in defence tonight.