Brilliant performances from young halves Jarome Luai and Nathan Cleary has helped Penrith overcome a fast-starting and fast-finishing Roosters 29-28 at Panthers Stadium in the first qualifying final on Friday night.
The see-sawing match featured a dominant 28-0 run from Penrith, book-ended by a brilliant opening and late surge by the defending champions.
In the end it was an ice-cold Cleary field goal with three minutes remaining that sealed the deal for the minor premiers although a very late Angus Crichton try closed the gap to one point to set up a grandstand finish.
It was fitting reward after the Cleary's first-half hat-trick, with his halves partner Luai a constant menace on the left edge, using outside weapons Viliame Kikau, Stephen Crichton and Josh Mansour to perfection.
Match: Panthers v Roosters
Finals Week 1 -
Venue: Panthers Stadium, Penrith
Panthers coach Ivan Cleary said his team would get plenty out of the match having overcome some defensive lapses and a big comeback push against the premier side of the past two years.
"When the draw came out and we were playing the Roosters I thought that was a good thing," Cleary said.
"I always knew that regardless of the outcome we'd get a lot out of this game but to win it gives us a lot of confidence. Just to go through that 80 minutes with so many ebbs and flows was a good learning experience for our boys."
Cleary has his say on Kikau tackle
He praised his son Nathan's continued growth in the game.
"Nat's shown throughout his young career these are the types of games he goes well in. It's just little details, competing and effort areas. He was good again there tonight," Ivan added.
"[Effort areas] are what he's built his whole game on since he was a kid. He's had a better season now. He's always done that stuff but now he's seeing the game a bit better, the game's slowed down for him now, he's got the creative part going and all the game management part too."
Cleary scores from a loose ball to get Penrith level
After a ferocious start to the game the Roosters drew first blood in near identical fashion to the week prior, repeatedly hammering the opposition right side defence with Josh Morris eventually cashing in in the sixth minute.
When Kikau was penalised for a lifting tackle on the next set, the Tricolours matched downfield and a huge Angus Crichton carry was stopped millimetres short but created the chance for Freddy Lussick to dive over from dummy half and a 10-0 lead in as many minutes.
A Brian To'o error handed the Roosters yet another full set on the attack soon after and the rattled Panthers were in danger off falling 16-0 behind. Instead their left edge took control of the game.
First Luai, Crichton and Mansour bundled Brett Morris into touch to get their team off the hook.
Then – with the help of a Waerea-Hargreaves penalty to get them in range – a perfectly worked left side play from Luai to Kikau put Mansour outside Brett Morris with an athletic grounding getting the home side on the board.
Another penalty against Waerea-Hargreaves – this time for a high shot on Edwards that left him on report – helped the Panthers into range and a messy offload from Liam Martin to Edwards ended with a supporting Cleary and a 10-all scorecard after 22 minutes.
Cleary had his second five minutes later when he beat James Tedesco to a neat Luai grubber next to the posts to claim the lead and his hat-trick just before half-time after another great left side play from Laui got Crichton one-on-one with Kyle Flanagan and into space with Cleary again supporting to score for a 22-10 half time lead.
A wild Daniel Tupou offload early in the second half put his side under pressure; it should have cost them two points for a penalty shortly after but Cleary's kick hit the posts and came back to the Panthers. They scored soon after with Luai batting back a Cleary bomb for Crichton to score.
Tedesco tries to inspire his team
Down 28-10 having conceded 28 unanswered points, the Roosters looked shot but showed their championship qualities to drag themselves back into the contest.
A piece of individual brilliance from James Tedesco stopped the rot then minutes later a Keary bomb bobbled back off the Panthers with Josh Morris swopping to make it 28-22 with 15 to play.
A tense 10 minutes followed before Cleary showed nerves of steel to land a field goal to seemingly put the result beyond doubt at 29-22.
The Roosters' short kick-off was optimistically grabbed by Naden before it travelled 10 metres to give the Roosters a penalty and Crichton crashed over soon after to set up a grandstand final 90 seconds.
The minor premiers clung on as Keary's hit-and-hope field goal attempt from 45 metres out fell short.
The result books a week off for Penrith and sends the Roosters to a semi-final against the winner of the Raiders-Sharks clash.
Clutch Cleary gives Penrith an edge
There are judiciary woes for each side. Kikau was penalised for a lifting tackle and while he was not placed on report, 30 carry-over points from a grade two charge in round 15 would all but guarantee a suspension if charged and found guilty.
Waerea-Hargreaves has loading but no carry-overs so would escape a ban unless given a charge above grade one.
"I looked at [Kikau's tackle] at the time," Ivan Cleary said.
"It definitely went past the horizontal but I thought he actually did enough to get him out of that dangerous position. The problem with Kiks is he's just so big, he almost gets discriminated against because he's just so big everything he does looks worse.
"Cross your fingers on that one but obviously no-one was hurt. I did think he arrested Jared from getting him away from being in a dangerous position."