Penrith’s representative round contingent has thrown off fitness concerns and has returned to club level in the NRL to defeat a feisty Sydney Roosters 26-18.
The small premiership now seems like a formality for the Panthers, who are the most successful team this century after 16 rounds and can take four wins at the top of the ladder by the end of the round.
Previously, the Knights completely defeated the Gold Coast Titans in front of their own audience in Newcastle.
All but one of the top 13 of the Panthers played representative football this past weekend while the NRL took a break, but coach Ivan Cleary chose to name an unchanged starting squad for his clash at Penrith Stadium.
It turned out to be the right decision – but only rightly so.
With seven of their own players backing up, the Roosters gave the defending champions their biggest challenge since their round nine loss to Parramatta.
The versatile Joey Manu started at halftime in the absence of Luke Keary (concussion) and had a hand in both the Roosters’ first try and the one that gave his side the lead early in the second half.
In wet conditions, the Panthers seemed reluctant to play as extensively on offense as usual, but found it more difficult to break through their opponents’ defenses.
Perhaps because of the weather, the Panthers’ own defenses were unusually fragile; the Roosters’ first two attempts in the second half came from close range and caused the Penrith crowd to become quiet.
But as they struggled for momentum, the stars of the Panthers’ Origin rose; first Nathan Cleary sent a perfect pass to Izack Tago, helping the Panthers regain the lead, then Api Koroisau crawled forward from the dummy half to seal the result.
NSW coach Brad Fittler is said to have looked nervous when Panthers and Blues center Stephen Crichton appeared to squeeze his hamstring in the first half.
But Crichton managed to stay on the field and the Panthers confirmed the injury was not a problem for the medical staff at halftime.
Influential lock striker Victor Radley, who played his first game since mid-May, left the field early for an assessment of his head injury.
The Roosters will hope not to lose him for more games; they only won one out of five when he was sidelined with an ankle injury.
Lee’s five-star getaway as Knights defeat Titans
Winger Edrick Lee has become Newcastle’s highest try-scorer in an NRL match when he contributed five in the Knights’ 38-12 win over Gold Coast at McDonald Jones Stadium.
That gave the former Origin nine tries so far in 2022 and finally the loyal Knights fans had something to laugh about, even if it was only the second home win in seven games.
Lee’s pull saw him outshine six Newcastle players who have mocked four tries in a game – the last being James McManus in 2013.
Lee’s teammate, Dominic Young, claimed a hat-trick to make the two wingers the only Knights players to score.
But there was another drama going on besides rewriting the knights’ record books.
In the second half, Titans prop Jarrod Wallace was sent off for a dangerous tackle on Knights utility Simi Sasagi close to the Gold Coast line.
The benefit was not immediate when David Klemmer was jailed for retaliation.
After that, the knights had to fight for victory.
After skipping to 22-0, the Titans scored two tries to make the score 22-12 within five minutes early in the second half.
But a 10-point margin was as close as the visitors got, with the avalanche of late points leading the Titans to a sixth loss in a row.
These two sides made it to the NRL final last year, but they are languishing between the also rans this year with nine rounds to go.
Still, nothing could be better for coach Adam O’Brien than five tries in the first half and three in the second.
The number of eight was the most scored by the Knights in a game this season.
It was a different story for Titans fans, with their losing streak now tapering back to round 10 during the magic round.
In the first half, winger Lee took advantage of two superb passes from his halves and then a good kick.
Lee’s hat-trick combined with a brace for Young in the 10th and 27th minutes.
Those efforts by the men patrolling the flanks gave the Knights a handy 22-0 lead at halftime.
It would have been healthier if kicker Tex Hoy’s radar had been more direct.
He missed four conversions in the first 40 minutes.
In the second half, after Tanah Boyd was denied early by a Titans knock-on on the run, fullback AJ Brimson made a 48m sprint through defense in the first game after a scrum.
Greg Marzhew crossed with Jamayne Isaako and made two sideline conversions to bring some life to the game.
But when Lee scored two more runs and Young got his third, the curtain fell again for the Titans.
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