Penrith has laid to rest any concerns about their form as the NRL finals approach, ending South Sydney’s 10-match winning streak and making a statement with a 25-12 victory at Lang Park.
In Friday night’s earlier match in Brisbane, Manly just got home against Canberra, winning 19-18.
After the Rabbitohs bolted out of the blocks to lead 12-0 after 23 minutes, last year’s grand finalists Penrith produced a near-perfect second half to show it is back near its best.
Nathan Cleary terrorised former teammate Josh Mansour with his bombs, while Paul Momirovski proved to be an unlikely Panthers hero.
The only worry for Penrith was a concussion suffered by Dylan Edwards, leaving Stephen Crichton to make his mark at fullback.
While the two sides will almost certainly face each other again in a qualifying final next month, the Panthers showed they loom as a title challenger to defending premiers Melbourne after their first match at anywhere near full strength since June.
And it was Cleary who had his fingerprints all over the victory, creating something out of nothing for the Panthers’ first points.
The halfback put on a two-man cut-out ball for Kurt Capewell, before winger Momirovski kicked back in field for Cleary to score.
Momirovski’s boot had Penrith back to 12-10 down on half-time, when he got cramped for space on the right before a shallow chip helped Crichton score.
Cleary’s kicking game was the difference in the second half.
He kept the Panthers locked in on the Rabbitohs’ line, with a Tom Burgess high tackle allowing him to kick his side level.
Moments later the Panthers found themselves in the lead when Mark Nicholls was pinged for a downtown penalty, letting Cleary kick them two points clear.
And after Matt Burton put winger Brent Naden over unmarked, it was a Cleary field goal from 20 metres out that wrapped up the game before a late Api Koroisau try.
The result means South Sydney will enter the finals without a win over either the Panthers or the Storm this season.
While the Rabbitohs conceded 50 points against both those sides earlier this year, Friday night’s performance at least showed how far they have come.
Their first try came after an Edwards error and their second through Latrell Mitchell was after a perfect Adam Reynolds 40/20, but they lacked the impetus in the second half.
Playmaker Cody Walker was unable to make the same impact he has in the past three months, while none of their forward ran 100 metres.
They also ended the night with Keaon Koloamatangi on report, potentially in trouble for a crusher tackle on Naden.
Sea Eagles fight back to edge Raiders
Manly has come from 12 points down to beat Canberra, boosting its top-four hopes and denying the Raiders entry to the top eight.
The Raiders looked to have the measure of the Tom Trbojevic-less Sea Eagles in a gritty first half that played into their hands as they ran up a 12-0 lead.
But hard-running pair Moses Suli and Haumole Olakau’atu ignited Des Hasler’s Sea Eagles and captain Daly Cherry-Evans’s boot turned the tide, while Jake Trbojevic laid two match-changing tackles.
Trbojevic knocked the ball loose from Charnze Nicholl-Klokstad’s first carry in his return from neck surgery, with Morgan Harper scoring from the next play to level the scores.
Then Trbojevic somehow managed to halt Josh Papalii as the Raiders prop stormed within reach of an equaliser.
Either side of that tackle, Cherry-Evans laid on a pinpoint grubber for a Curtis Sironen try and then nailed the decisive field goal to put them seven ahead.
Introduced for the last 25 minutes of the match, Nicholl-Klokstad did score with 30 seconds to play.
But even after being piggy-backed up field by a penalty, Jordan Rapana could not nail the two-point field goal from 45 metres out to snatch a win.
The result sees the Sea Eagles go level with the Sydney Roosters, who have a game in hand, in fourth with two games remaining.
Manly looked offensively lost in their first scoreless first half of the season, with seven errors to the Raiders’ four not helping their cause.
Olakau’atu did his best to provide the spark, putting in a neat short kick to earn a repeat set and then stripping possession to mount another charge.
He thought he had put his side on level terms soon after when he barged over from a Daly Cherry-Evans short ball, only for it to be overruled because of an obstruction.
That frustration was ratcheted up when referee Adam Gee ruled a Raiders scrum feed after Emre Guler’s knock-on, deeming there was no advantage after Reuben Garrick had spilt a high ball in the same sequence.
Jack Wighton put Bailey Simonsson over in the left corner from the next set to push their lead out to 12-0 at half-time.
Olakau’atu was not denied at the start of the second half, twisting out of a tackle to score after Suli had made the break.