With several of Penrith’s big names kept aside for another day, it was the Panthers’ “generation next”, who having "hook-winked" us all less than a week earlier to get within an inside support of scoring the Auckland Nines’ winning bonus try, were not only on show against most of Belmore’s best, but got the upper hand, recording a convincing 20-10 win.
Te Maire Martin and Dylan Edwards starred early on as they capitalised on the brutal defence inflicted by Sitaleki Akauola, Moses Leota and Viliame Kikau on their more illustrious opponents, including the likes of James Graham, David Klemmer, Josh Jackson and Sam Kasiano.
Dean Whare, Peta Hiku, Tim Browne and Samisoni Langi all came through their first game back from significant injury, with the latter two also making their first on-field appearance in Penrith colours, as did the likes of Mitch Rein and Michael Oldfield.
Edwards with the in-and-away enabled Waqa Blake to score over in the corner in the 3rd minute, before a deft short pass at the line by Martin allowed back-rower Corey Harawira-Naera to extend the lead to ten, midway through the quarter.
A try to Danny Fualolo off a Sam Kasiano offload just before half-time was all the Bulldogs had to show for their attacking dominance in the second quarter, trailing by four at half-time.
With teams both changed over to mostly Intrust Super Premiership sides in the second-half, it was Penrith who continued to dominate, scoring through Sione Katoa and Mason Cerruto to lead 20-6 at three quarter time, before a consolation try to Lachlan Lewis late in the final quarter made the final score 20-10.
Whilst happy with what he saw on the field given the conditions, Panthers coach Anthony Griffin was especially pleased to walk away from the game injury-free.
“I thought everyone defended really well tonight,” Griffin stated. “At times we showed some nice things with the ball. Obviously trial form in these conditions was always going to be a little bit scrappy but overall I thought they were all pretty good.
“I thought the biggest thing was that we got through it without any injury. We had Hiku and Whare, Browne, Samisoni Langi (coming back) and we gave everyone some time and we come out of it clean so that’s the thing I’m most happy with.”
The injury-free run came to a halt just three days however when Dallin Watene-Zelezniak suffered a meniscus tear in his knee at training, that will keep him out of action until at worst Round 3, after deciding to undergo a meniscectomy later this week to repair the damage.
That aside, the form of his young brigade, means selection headaches for Griffin ahead of their NRL season-opener against St-George Illawarra (hopefully not through injury touch wood) after naming a strong 21-man squad for this Saturday night’s Battle of the West clash against Parramatta, the only time these two teams will feature at Pepper Stadium in 2017.
Apart from Watene-Zelezniak and Josh Mansour, Trent Merrin (niggles - Round 1) was also unavailable, as Griffin named the following side:
Matt Moylan, Dean Whare, Waqa Blake, Tyrone Peachey, Peta Hiku, Te Maire Martin, Nathan Cleary, James Tamou, Peter Wallace, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, James Fisher-Harris, Isaah Yeo, Bryce Cartwright
Interchange: Mitch Rein, Leilani Latu, Sam McKendry, Moses Leota, Dylan Edwards, Corey Harawira-Naera, Sitaleki Akauola, Tim Browne
How will Griffin juggle his outside backs for Round One? Credit: NRL Photos.
With Mansour (knee - Round 12-14) and Watene-Zelezniak (knee - Round 2-3) now both out injured, it appears that with the selection of Whare and Hiku to start on the wings in this Saturday's trial, the Kiwi pair are ahead of Dylan Edwards at this stage for those Round One spots, despite Griffin stating after the Bulldogs trial that the Junior Kangaroo was well in the mix.
“We’ll give a few guys an opportunity this week in the outside backs now that they are fit and well,” Griffin said. “Dylan Edwards is doing a great job there as well. He played great at the nines, he was good again at fullback tonight. He’s trained his back-side off in the off-season and he hasn’t done anything wrong.”
Tyrone Peachey is now set to retain his starting position in the centres, which opens up a couple of spots on the interchange bench.
Leilani Latu and James Fisher-Harris look to be certain selections on the interchange, while the likes of Mitch Rein, Sam McKendry, Tim Browne, Moses Leota, Sitaleki Akauola and possible bolter Corey-Harawira-Naera, will fight it out for those last two remaining bench spots.
The form shown in the opening trial against Canterbury continues on from the club’s unlikely but impressive tilt at the Auckland Nines, despite only playing the likes of Nathan Cleary, Isaah Yeo, James Tamou and Waqa Blake alongside a very inexperienced Nines squad.
Having accounted for Canterbury 28-18, a young Panthers side minus their big four were still too good for Cronulla and the Gold Coast, to top the group undefeated.
A golden try quarter final win over Manly was followed by a defensive 13-0 shut out on tournament favourites, Parramatta to qualify for their first Auckland Nines final.
Having gone in as outsiders in all but one or two games, the Panthers were slight favourites going into the final against fellow outsiders, Sydney Roosters.
But a sluggish start saw the Roosters jump out to lead 10-nil at the break before Panthers scored two unanswered second-half tries, only to come up short with their goal-kicking, going down 10-8.
But considering the Panthers were lambasted for the lack of NRL stars in their squad, a few experts were left with egg on their faces when Penrith collected $240,000, which will be shared between club and players.
Popular Junior Kangaroo, Holden Cup and NSW Cup winning prop, Andy Saunders has made the switch to Canterbury for the remainder of 2017.
The immediate retirement of David Shillington looks set to allow the Titans to intensify their interest in former Panthers forward, Chris Grevsmuhl who is understood to be currently in out in the Central West of NSW, training with Orange CYMS.
Trials for both the NRL and Holden Cup may have gone ahead despite the heat due to changes in kick-off times, but sensibly NSWRL junior representative matches including last Saturday’s games at Hillier Oval were cancelled against Wests and the Wests Tigers respectively.