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Penrith continued their unbeaten start to the NRL season, outlasting the Canberra Raiders to easily claim 36-6 winners late.
Canberra were excellent defensively but strangled in attack by a Panthers side that gave up next to nothing and were more than willing to smother their way to victory.
The sheer weight of the tackles was always likely to tell. The Panthers scored an unanswered 22 points in the second half, making the most of a tired defense that had made over 120 more tackles.
The final scoreline was a little unfair for the Raiders, but it was a Penrith side that showed just how willing they were to dig deep and play expansively. It wasn’t until they made the difficult yards that they started kicking the ball.
The average distances set told a story: Penrith went just under 40m every time they got the foot; the Raiders just over 25.
The back five were outstanding: Dylan Edwards and Taylan May topped the scoring and gave their forwards the energy they needed to build muscle in defence.
Midway through the second half, the Raiders were nearly 90% finished and shared possession, but had failed to cross the halfway line once since the break.
Such was the Panthers’ dominance that at one point the Raiders completed an entire set without leaving their own 20m zone, culminating in Jack Wighton kicking almost backwards onto the try line.
The first ten minutes seemed grim. Penrith dominated in field position and possession, with five straight sets down the Raiders’ line, but Canberra were good enough to fend them off.
It turned out to be unsustainable. The defense stood firm once again, but with the Panthers in Hail Mary mode at tackle five, Xavier Savage kicked the ball unnecessarily to invite even more pressure. Moments later he found himself gripping thin air as Stephen Crichton spun around him for the first down.
The Raiders fought back. Dylan Edwards and Matt Eisenhuth were caught staring at each other as the kickoff landed between them, forcing a retirement.
From the resulting set, Tom Starling created a gap for Joe Tapine to put Canberra back in the game, albeit very against the run of play.
Despite rumors of the death of the crushing rugby league, there were many in the first half at Penrith.
Most of the time the Panthers pushed and the Raiders pushed back, but that was not all and Canberra rejected a few of them.
The Panthers needed something unexpected to break the deadlock, and they got it from Soni Luke.
The 26-year-old replaced Api Koroisau to make his NRL debut and within moments did his best impression of the Blues hooker, coming out of the dummy half and sliding Isaah Yeo through a huge gap.
Canberra had struggled with discipline in the first half, losing the penalty tally 7-1, and it would finally say it when Nathan Cleary netted a penalty to end the first half.
The Panthers came out for the second half on fire. They were largely unable to create any real chances, such was the Raiders’ superb defense, but the tussle only went one way.
Unfortunately for Xavier Savage, it was his mistake again that created the opportunity for the Panthers.
His ball game was poor and the challenge attempt came too late – it might have succeeded – and after an examination of the bunker it was confirmed that Stephen Crichton had squirmed.
The Raiders were well offside from the kickoff and invited the Panthers back. Again they hit the mark: Cleary tossed the second into space, Crichton dove for the hat trick and was shoved by Matt Timoko.
It was ruled a penalty try – and Canberra couldn’t argue too much – and the floodgates were open. Next was Taylan May, somewhat fortuitously, before Jarome Luai took one off for an obstruction.
Canberra finally managed to play the ball into the Panthers’ half with two minutes left – they should have celebrated it as a try.
There was time for a post-match brawl between Jack Wighton and Dylan Edwards, but the cool heads finally set in. The contest was settled a long time ago.