Wests Tigers Holden Cup pushed the top-of-the-table Penrith Panthers all the way on Saturday but were unable to finish off with a win, going down 24-16 at ANZ Stadium.
Despite missing star players Jacob Liddle, Esan Marsters and Veiru Mapesone who were with the Intrust Super Premiership side, Wests Tigers were only narrowly defeated by a Panthers side that have lost just one game all year.
An early opportunity went begging for Wests Tigers when centre Tony Tali couldn’t ground a deflected pass close to the line, as the Panthers went the length of the field from the next set to score through Braidon Burns.
Jarome Luai converted the try for a 6-0 lead early in the match at ANZ Stadium.
With the Panthers deep on the attack soon after, Wests Tigers winger Roman Ioelu came up with a magic play to intercept a pass while defending his line and race away for a 90-metre effort to score.
Ryan Papenhuyzen converted the try to square the score up at 6-all after nine minutes.
Just four minutes later the Panthers showed their class with a move started on the halfway mark, going through four sets of hands before finding five-eighth Dean Blore who crossed under the sticks.
Luai made no mistake with the extra two points, making it a 12-6 lead after 14 minutes of play.
Continuing the one-for-one try-scoring trend, hooker Daniel Peck gave a nice short ball for a barnstorming Taniela Paseka who strolled through a gaping hole close to the line to score.
Ioelu took back over the goal-kicking duties and converted the easy attempt to make it a 12-all scoreline after 22 minutes.
A mistake from the kick-off put Wests Tigers back under pressure immediately and after what looked like a good defensive effort ended in the Panthers scoring a try from nothing on the last play through winger Christian Chrichton.
Luai was unable to convert the try from the sideline, leaving his side with a 16-12 advantage after 25 minutes.
Tali made a mistake working it out from his own half, handing possession to the Panthers who snuck in another try before half time by spreading it wide again to Crichton.
Luai missed the conversion from the exact same place as the last, leaving the score at 20-12 after 36 minutes.
Bayley Sironen split the defence just before the break and went 25 metres on his own before being pulled down just short of the line.
On the very next play, Holden Cup debutant Jai Doolan threw a stellar cut-out pass to Ioelu who put on a classy finish in the corner.
Ioelu missed the conversion from the sideline, with Wests Tigers going into the break trailing the competition-leaders 20-16.
In a heated opening to the second half, it looked as if the first points would come through Doolan in the 68th minute when he took an intercept on his own line – only to be pulled down 20 metres out from the try-line.
In that tackle – Penrith players wrestled Doolan on the ground – which resulted in halfback Luai being sent to the sin-bin.
Wests Tigers were unable to take advantage on the next attacking set, with the Panthers defenders forcing play over the sideline.
Despite seven tries being scored in the first half, it wasn’t until the 77th minute that the first points of the second stanza would come – with the Panthers wrapping up the game through hooker Wayde Egan.
With Luai off the field, Blore had a shot at goal but missed the relatively easy attempt and the score remained 24-16.
The full-time siren soon followed, with the Panthers holding on for their 13th win of the year.
FULL TIME — Penrith Panthers 24 (Chrichton 2, Burns, Blore, Egan tries; Luai 2/4, Blore 0/1 goals) def. Wests Tigers 16 (Ioelu 2, Paseka tries; Ioelu 1/2, Papenhuyzen 1/1 goals)