Pre-game Panthers coach Anthony Griffin warned not to expect the expansive game-play that took Penrith deep into the finals and made them 2017 co-premiership favorites.
In fact the Panthers coach said the early rounds are all about getting in there, kicking and scratching and finding enough points each week to get the win.
But what he probably didn’t count on was a Dragons side who not only out-muscled the Panthers forwards pack but played with an attacking style not seen by the Red V faithful for quite some time.
The end result was an embarrassing loss to the co-competition favorites, whom in losing 42-10 was not only the worst loss in the Griffin era, but also represented Penrith’s largest loss to a side many tipped would finish close to the bottom of the table.
Penrith were never really in the hunt after the Dragons took advantage of a strong possession flow to lead 12-0 after 25 minutes courtesy of a double to back-rower Joel Thompson.
An acrobatic try to Waqa Blake after Te Maire Martin took play down the blind-side on the last before producing a wonderful pass for the centre to score, opened Penrith’s account on the half-hour mark.
Waqa Blake's a highlight on an otherwise bleak afternoon for the Panthers. Credit: NRL Photos.
But when Jack De-Belin stormed through the heart of Penrith’s defence to extend the Dragons’ lead to 18-4 at the break, the writing was on the wall for the Panthers.
Penrith managed to cancel out Widdop’s early second half try through Martin and Moylan combining for Peachey try in the left corner after some exquisite ball movement from Martin and Matt Moylan,
But St George-Illawarra put the game out of Penrith’s reach with a try to Cameron McInnes.
Josh Dugan engineered the try when he shrugged off Panther back-rower, Bryce Cartwright, before he kicked and regathered, found Josh McCrone in support to put Cameron McInnes over for the try.
The harder Penrith tried to get back in the game, the more they slipped behind.
Bryce Cartwright, who made his much-anticipated return to the back-row, in particular had a game to forget. Although Cartwright led the tackle-count with 43 tackles, the back-rower missed eight, many of which led to points conceded by the so-called premiership fancies.
Thompson scored again to complete his first NRL hat-trick while Widdop’s second try completed a 22 point haul for the Dragons skipper, that equaled the joint-venture club’s point-scoring record in a NRL match.
After the game Dragons coach, Paul McGregor admitted that Penrith, with Josh Mansour and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak missing and their replacements, Dean Whare and Peta Hiku both returning from serious-ending knee injuries, were vulnerable.
As for a solemn Panthers coach Anthony Griffin, he said the heavy loss should put to an end all the talk surrounding his team being among the favourites to win this year’s premiership.
“It might take care of that (but) that’s not anything we speak about,” Griffin told the media after the game.
“We came here today and obviously we were looking forward to Round One.
“But we got really jumped early with that run of possession and never recovered.
“It’s disappointing from a team point of view but it’s (only) Round One.”
Griffin said that while St George-Illawarra deserved the win, he added that his team will need to lift their intensity in defence and make less errors if they are to be any hope of bouncing back next Sunday with a win at Campbelltown over a confident Wests Tigers side featuring ex-Panthers Tim Grant, Elijah Taylor, Kevin Naiqama and Jamal Idris.
“I thought St George were very good today,” Griffin said.
“They’ve got a big forward pack (and) just got a roll early in that first half and we couldn’t hold them.
“At times we got back into the battle a little bit but in the end they were far too good.
“I thought defensively we weren’t at the same intensity as they were.
“It’s a credit to them they came at us really hard with the ball and without the ball.
“In the end it led to us making a lot of errors.”
Penrith did escape the game without any injuries of note apart from licking their wounds and managing some bruised pride after suffering such an unexpected loss to the Dragons.
Trent Merrin surprised many when he played just 44 minutes but his coach later confirmed that he merely nursing his star forward, having had a disrupted pre-season while Peter Wallace (concussion) was allowed to return to the field late in the game.
Penrith Panthers 10 (W Blake T Peachey tries, Cleary goal) defeated by St George-Illawarra 42 at Kogarah Oval. Half-time: St George Illawarra 18-4. Referees: H Perenara, P Gough. Crowd: 7,283.