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For almost 70 minutes the Penrith Panthers made last year’s grand finalists look second rate, but despite a mini lapse of concentration, they withheld a late Bulldogs onslaught to register a 24-18 win on Sunday afternoon.
The Panthers went some way to extracting revenge for their preliminary final heartache at the hands of Canterbury with a thrilling round one victory against the Bulldogs at Pepper Stadium led by an inspired performance from hooker James Segeyaro and a double to winger Dallin Watene-Zelezniak.
The Bulldogs, minus former skipper Michael Ennis, never looked in the contest until the 68th minute when they scored the first of three tries in 10 minutes to give themselves a chance at what seemed an unlikely comeback with three minutes remaining.
However, despite clawing their way back from a 24-0 deficit, the Bulldogs were unable to land the final blow in the dying minutes to take the match into extra time, leaving the foot of the mountains empty handed.
The Panthers defence held firm when it mattered most, withstanding two attacking sets from the Bulldogs in the final minute to hold on to the two competition points ahead of their round two match against the Gold Coast Titans in Bathurst on Saturday.
“We came into this game, and I always had a question mark over whether we could match up in a hot day for 80 minutes with a lot of players coming back from surgery in the off-season,” Panthers coach Ivan Cleary said.
“Fatigue’s an issue. The reality is in today’s game, if you lose momentum … they had nothing to lose. Playing the Bulldogs when they have nothing to lose, there’s not too many teams more dangerous. They are a big side coming off the bench and everything seemed to be going their way at that time. My issue is allowing that momentum to change in the first place but we’ll move on and hopefully learn from the experience without having to lose.”
Not many clubs have the luxury of keeping all their players from the previous season, but Panthers coach Ivan Cleary has all 17 players he used in last year’s preliminary final at his disposal – and some.
The Panthers welcomed back Peter Wallace, Bryce Cartwright and Tyrone Peachey, who all missed last year’s finals series with season-ending injuries, also handing Raegan Campbell-Gillard and George Jennings their debuts.
Given Penrith’s opening round performance in front of a crowd of 18,814, the Sydney Roosters and South Sydney Rabbitohs appear to have some company in the premiership heavyweight category.
For the Bulldogs, the addition of Australian representative and former Dragons speedster Brett Morris at fullback, as well as ex-Cowboys winger Curtis Rona, didn’t have the impact coach Des Hasler would have hoped in their first outing of the year.
While Morris showed plenty of promise in the No.1 jersey, including a 70 metre try in the dying minutes, his forwards and halves failed to get the fullback into many quality positions for the majority of the match.
“I thought the first half we probably tended to shoot ourselves in the foot a lot,” Hasler said.
“Penrith didn’t have to do much to get down the field. At one stage the possession was round about 35 per cent and our attitude with the ball was poor. we weren’t responsible enough with the ball, which is probably a trend we have had a lot within the side. So it’s something that really hinders us and something we really need to adjust. I didn’t think we got many 50-50 calls.
“Some days you have those games, some days you don’t. The second half we played with possession. We traded set for set with them and were able to build some pressure and play with some field position and put on some points. So form that angle, from that position we were a little bit disappointed with our performance today.”
The Bulldogs also have a nervous wait ahead of their Friday night clash with arch rivals Parramatta with Josh Jackson on report for a crusher tackle on George Jennings, while Josh Reynolds, who was charged with tripping Ben Barba last season, could find himself in hot water after he stuck his foot out trying to tackle James Segeyaro in the first half.
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