New recruit James Roberts proved he may be the man to replace Michael Jennings at the Panthers this year with a strong display in the club’s thrilling 34-32 trial win over the Wests Tigers in Bathurst last night.
Roberts, suddenly a strong contender for a centre spot after Jennings’ switch to the Roosters last month, scored the winning try with just seconds remaining on the clock but it was his speed earlier in the match, when the former Rabbitoh broke away before sending Lachlan Coote over for a try, that had Panthers fans smiling.
Whilst the match was scrappy at times, the Panthers looked the better side throughout the contest, and after the match, coach Ivan Cleary said he wasn’t too concerned with his side’s defensive lapses in the last 10 minutes, acutely aware it was his squad’s first hit-out after a long, hot summer.
The Tigers took a 4-0 lead in the match, which mainly featured second teir players, but Penrith took control as the first half progressed, with former Fijian hotel porter Etonia Nabuli breaking through for the club’s first four-pointer in the 23rd minute.
By half-time Penrith had extended their lead to 12, with Geoff Daniela and stand-in halfback Blake Austin both crossing for tries.
For Austin, the number seven jersey was unfamiliar territory but he told the Weekender after the game that he had no intentions of challenging Luke Walsh for the key playmaking role in 2013.
“I don’t think I am going to pressure Walshy too much but it was good to get through the game with a win and with no injuries,” he said.
“There’s a lot of responsibility at seven but we got through it and I will be better for it.”
The Tigers showed some fight through the second half and wouldn’t let Penrith skip away, setting up a thrilling final 10 minutes in which a rush of points were scored.
Leading 22-20 heading into the final 10 minutes, Penrith extended their lead with a freakishly exciting try to Travis Robinson, before the Tigers crossed with three minutes left to close the deficit to just two points.
The Tigers then took the lead with another try, but Penrith had the last laugh, securing the ball from a short kick-off and going straight on the attack. Roberts crossed with seconds remaining, and Austin potted the conversion after the full-time siren to confirm a confidence-boosting win for the Panthers.
After the game, Panthers coach Ivan Cleary said he was comfortable with the result.
“It was a good trial, a typical trial with lots of ups and downs and good parts and bad parts,” he said.
“All in all it looks like we’ve come away not too bad on the injury front, which is always a positive.”
Cleary said he was impressed with James Roberts, and pleased that Nathan Smith made a successful comeback from injury.
“He’s pretty happy just to get through the game and he showed some great signs out there,” he said.
The win last night was the end of a positive week for Penrith in Bathurst, with numerous school and community visits.
“The crowd seemed to be in to it… we put on a decent show and I think most people will go home happy,” Cleary said of the local crowd.
“It’s crucial [to bring games to places like Bathurst]. We’ve got to support rugby league in the bush.”
Cleary said any player who didn’t participate in last night’s trial would get a run against the Warriors next weekend.
Penrith is not expected to field a totally full strength side until the week after against Parramatta in the Battle of the West at Centrebet Stadium.