A late try to Dragons halfback Darren Nicholls put a dagger in the hearts of his former team, giving the joint-venture a nail-biting 24-22 victory over the Penrith Panthers at WIN Stadium on Saturday.
Coach Mat Head named multiple players in different positions, with not many of them eventuating once the players took the paddock. The most notable changes were that of play-maker Adam Clune who dropped to fullback, replaced by Darren Nicholls in the halves which pushed Tristan Sailor to the centre and Jackson Ford back to a more familiar and sensible second-row position.
The Dragons have gifted an early chance by the Panthers after a wayward pass found Tristan Sailor who scooped it up nearly breaking the defenders. Exciting prospect Jai Field took advantage of the staggered Penrith defenders the next play, fooling the Panthers with a dummy before racing forty meters to plant it down.
The hosts nearly had a second a short time later, when Field again found himself among the action splitting the defence once again before popping a ball back inside to Adam Clune who couldn’t hang on to it.
The Panthers clawed their way back into to taking full advantage of their chance with the steeden, producing a nice backline play which was finished off nicely by Stephen Crichton out wide.
The kick from Dean Blore was equally impressive from the sideline to level it up at 6-all.
A long cross-field kick by Darren Nicholls was plucked out of the air nicely by Crichton who nearly broke through Red V defenders before a smart counter-attack option resulted in the hosts second four-pointer, with Steve Marsters raking the ball before racing a short distance to cross under the sticks. Sailor made no mistake with the kick to give his side a six-point lead.
Panthers Brayden McGrady turned defence into attack when he took an intercept on his own line, before racing the length of the field to score an incredible try. The sideline conversion was again nailed by Blore to level it at 12-all.
The Panthers looked the better side in the final fifteen minutes of the first half and were rewarded with another try just before the break when Charlie Staines broke through before throwing a basketball like pass over to Crichton who finished it off, bagging a first-half double and giving the Panthers an 18-12 halftime lead.
The visitors survived to early scares shortly after the resumption with the Dragons bombing two scoring opportunities in a space of just four tackles. Penrith dusted themselves off from the shaky start, charging up field a short while later to score their fourth try of the afternoon through Reed Izzard who crashed over from short range. Blore blotched the kick, meaning the Panthers held just a ten point lead.
It was third time lucky for the Red V, with some off the cuff footy leading to their first try of the second half, shifting the ball dragons east to west, before it landed in the hands of Jackson Ford hand who tucked it under his arm and straightened the attack, eventually burrowing over the line to keep his side in the game, trailing 22-18 with a quarter remaining.
The game was in the balance for a good period of the second half, with both teams not taking full advantage of their opportunities. This included a gift two points for the Panthers in front of the sticks which went begging when Blore hit the right-hand upright before it landed in the hands of the Dragons.
The hosts looked to attack immediately after the regather, but turned over the ball just a few tackles later. A grandstand finish was on the cards at this moment with less than ten minutes of play remaining.
Moments later Dragons half Darren Nicholls split through the Panthers defence from close range, diving over to score a much-needed try for the Red V. Sailors kick put the hosts in front 24-22 with five remaining on the clock. The Panthers had a chance to steal it late in the game but came up trumps when Billy Burns dropped the ball in a crucial position.
The Dragons held their nerve, running away narrow 24-22 victors over the competition front-runners.