Dragons beat Panthers in NYC thriller
The St George Illawarra Dragons have survived a ferocious second-half comeback from the Penrith Panthers to hang on for a thrilling 18-16 win in the Holden Cup.
The hosts raced out to an 18-0 lead at half-time in atrocious conditions at UOW Jubilee Oval, only for Penrith to score three unanswered tries in the second stanza to make a game of it.
It was the second year in a row the Panthers had lost their season opener by two points, and the win will give the Red V a huge boost as they look to build on last year's top-four finish.
The Panthers should have taken the lead in the seventh minute when Wayde Egan slid over untouched from dummy-half, but the experienced No.9 lost control of the ball in the process of scoring.
Instead it was the home side who would open the scoring when halfback Jackson Willis showed incredible strength to carry three defenders to the line before he snuck an arm through the pack to somehow reach the line.
The Red V doubled their advantage in the 21st minute when big man Matt Sheppard crashed onto a short ball one off the ruck to make it 12-0.
There was a special moment five minutes later when Tristan Sailor – the son of former Dragon Wendell Sailor – intercepted a Dean Blore pass and ran 60 metres to score a try in front of his father on debut.
The second half didn't get off to the best start with Dragons hooker Cooper Purcell forced from the field after copping a monster front-on shot that left him feeling worse for wear.
It got worse for the home side when Panthers fullback Caleb Aekins slithered over in the corner before Blore nailed the sideline conversion to cut the gap to 12 points.
Penrith's second-half charge continued when Brian Too spectacularly gathered a dribbling grubber from Egan to score in the right corner, but Blore couldn't repeat his heroics from the opposite side of the field.
The winger should have his second moments later when the Dragons fumbled a towering bomb, but after doing all the hard work Too lost control of the slippery ball as he attempted to slam it down.
Time looked to be against the Panthers, but back-rower Reed Izzard gave last year's minor premiers a glimmer of hope when he crashed over with four minutes to go make it a two-point game, but there wouldn't be any fairytale finish, with the Dragons holding on for a gutsy first-round victory.
St George Illawarra Dragons 18 (Jackson Willis, Matt Sheppard, Tristan Sailor tries; Zac Lomax 2, Jackson Willis 1 goals) defeated Penrith Panthers 16 (Caleb Aekins, Brian Too, Reed Izzard tries; Dean Blore 2 goals) at UOW Jubilee Oval. Half-time: 18-0.