Matt Burton helped ease the pressure for Penrith to rush star halfback Nathan Cleary back from injury after sparking the Panthers to a gritty 20-14 triumph over Sydney Roosters to keep their minor premiership hopes alive.
Burton scored two tries, made three line-breaks, seven tackle breaks and ran a game high 211 metres with the ball as Penrith bounced back from last weekend’s 37-10 loss to Melbourne.
Yet even those statistics don't do justice to Burton's performance after side-stepping James Tedesco to score his first try and beating four defenders, including the superstar fullback, close to the Roosters line for his second.
The 48th minute try, which proved to be the difference between the two sides, followed a 50-metre break from dummy half that ended when a desperate Tedesco stopped him with the try line in sight.
“Matt was terrific today," Panthers coach Ivan Cleary said. "I think he would probably admit that in the last few weeks he has been a bit quiet but when he runs the ball and gets into space you can see what he can do.
Match: Roosters v Panthers
Round 21 -
Venue: Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
“I thought he kicked pretty well, too. Defensively he certainly did his job as well so I am happy for him. He is a good kid and he certainly had a great game."
With Cleary having been sidelined for six weeks with a shoulder injury sustained in Origin II, the Panthers are pleased they refused to grant Burton an early release to join the Bulldogs.
Burton is insurance for Penrith during the finals in case Cleary re-injures his shoulder after he returns, as Parramatta hooker Reed Mahoney did on Friday night.
“The fact is that there is potential for re-injury but through smart management and a bit of luck we feel pretty good about it," Ivan Cleary said.
“It is just a matter of Nathan going through the process week by week. He has got to be confident and we have got to be confident. Luckily we have got enough wins in the bank to be a bit more selective [about when he plays]."
The defeat of the Roosters ensured Penrith retain second place on for-and-against ahead of South Sydney after the Rabbitohs 40-12 thumping of Parramatta on Friday night.
It also opens up an eight-point buffer between the top three teams and the fourth-placed Eels and Roosters.
Burton gave the Panthers an early 6-0 lead when he ran 80 metres to score after receiving a long pass from star second-rower Viliame Kikau and stepping around Tedesco.
Burton steps his way through the Roosters to get his second
Roosters lock Victor Radley helped to level the scores at 6-all soon after when he crashed over from close to the Penrith line and Adam Keighran converted.
However, ill-discipline with the ball and by individual players cost the Roosters dearly.
Burton kicked two penalty goals and centre Paul Momirovski scored late in the first half, after Kiwi prop Jared Waerea-Hargreaves was sent to the sin-bin following three consecutive ruck infringements by the Roosters.
Waerea-Hargreaves only played 12 minutes in total.
Roosters forwards Angus Crichton and Nat Butcher were placed on report.
Crichton sets up Tupou as the Roosters edge closer
To the Roosters' credit they refused to lie down when Burton's second try made the margin 14, with Joey Manu scoring in the corner in the 58th minute after Sam Walker and Tedesco combined to create space from a scrum win and a big shot by Radley led to another try by winger Daniel Tupou.
But the Panthers steadied and hung on for a crucial win.
“It was an important win for us tonight and I thought it was built on effort, communication, team work and intensity," Cleary said.
“There were plenty of things that we need to improve but we are just in a phase at the moment where we have to bunker down and work hard.
“Hopefully we can build in the next four weeks to hit the finals in some decent form. That will be the plan and today was an important start on that."