- Stewart Moses
Panthers' stellar Auckland Nines campaign ends in agony.
Waqa Blake about to score the bonus try that secured an unlikely place in the Auckland Nines Final. Photo: Penrith Panthers.
Penrith's stunning Auckland Nines run came to an agonising end in the Final, as fellow outsiders, the Sydney Roosters held off a determined second-half fightback from the Panthers to run out 10-8 victors.
Criticised before a ball was kicked in anger at Eden Park for publicly saying what most NRL clubs think about the Nines, Penrith took across the Tasman, the tournament's most inexperienced squad, with just eight players having a combined total of just 312 NRL games experience.
But the critics were silenced when Penrith reached the final as the only undefeated team after five matches.
But while the initial tactic to hold back Penrith's big four - Nathan Cleary, James Tamou, Isaah Yeo and Waqa Blake for nearly 24 hours paid dividends, the heavy workload soon eventually took it's toll on many of their inexperienced team-mates, with a tired and disjointed Panthers outfit trailed a Roosters outfit high on momentum and energy, 10-0 at half-time.
Despite a second-half fightback that saw the Panthers score two tries of their own while the Roosters try-less and score two tries and keep the Roosters scoreless, Darren Nicholls' hooked conversion attempt of a late Nathan Cleary solo try that would have otherwise leveled the scores, ensured the Roosters would hang on to win.
Penrith's tournament got off to a bright start, accounting for a disappointing Bulldogs side 28-18 courtesy of two amazing solo tries to James Tamou, in his first match in Panther colours.
The resting of Penrith's "big four" saw the young Panthers, with just 30 NRL games experience between them, qualify for the Finals as shock winners of the Waiheke Pool after 16-14 and 22-4 wins over more fancied opponents Cronulla and Gold Coast respectively.
The fairy tale continued into the quarter-finals, with Penrith coming back late from 12-5 down against Manly to advance to the semi-finals courtesy of Tyrone May's Golden Try.
And when a Waqa Blake double on the back of an inspired defensive effort enabled the Panthers, having entered the Nines as $26 outsiders, to qualify for their first ever Nines final as slight favourites after a 13-0 win over their fiercest rivals.
Despite the loss, Penrith not only take solace with the $240,000 runners-up cheque, but have earned plenty of recognition for their outstanding and largely unexpected efforts throughout the two days in the process.
Moses Leota and Waqa Blake were named in the Nines Team of the Tournament, while the likes of May, Jed Cartwright, Sione Katoa, Dylan Edwards, Zach Dockar-Clay and Malakai Watene-Zelezniak come out of the Nines with enhanced reputations, as pre-season preparations now focus on upcoming trials versus the Bulldogs and Parramatta.