A pair of tries at the death has seen the Canberra Raiders go down 24-20 in heartbreaking fashion to the Penrith Panthers at Bathurst’s Carrington Park on Saturday evening.
The Raiders appeared to be headed for a return to the winners’ circle off the back of a trio of second-half tries which had propelled them to a 20-12 lead, but the Panthers then revealed their teeth.
First came a 79th -minute try to Corey Harawira-Naera when he split the Raiders up the guts to score from close range.
Nathan Cleary added the extras to make it a two-point ball-game at 20-18, before Tyrone Peachey collected a Matt Moylan offload 15 metres out from the Raiders’ line as the Panthers snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.
The sides headed into the second 40 one man down each after forwards Joe Tapine and Harawira-Naera were sent to the bin on the stroke of the half-time break.
It was Penrith who appeared less affected by the loss of one troop early in the second term when Cleary steamed onto a Dylan Edwards ball less than a minute in before adding the extras to hand his side a 12-4 lead.
But the Raiders did not waste time in striking back.
Jack Wighton leapt high into nippy Bathurst skies in search of an Aidan Sezer kick before captain Jarrod Croker collected the ricocheting pill to find Nick Cotric in space on the left edge in the 45 th minute.
The skipper put the ball over the black dot to again make it a two-point ball-game at 12-10 to the Panthers.
Canberra then came tantalisingly close to pinching the lead six minutes later when interchange hooker Kurt Baptiste appeared to have grounded a Sezer grubber in his first game back from injury.
The Bunker didn’t like the look of it, but what the officials did agree with was a 58th minute try to Joey Leilua.
Elliott Whitehead latched on to a wobbling Sezer punt to find the 25-year- old on his outside, Leilua marking his first game since re-signing with the Green Machine until the end of 2020 with his eighth four-pointer of the season.
Croker made no mistake from the tee before the men in green turned a 16-12 lead into a 20-12 buffer two minutes later when Cotric crossed for his second try of the game just inside the left corner post.
Penrith would go on to steal the game in the shadows of full-time after it seemed the Raiders were headed for a return to the top eight.
The Raiders drew first blood when Jordan Rapana capped off a polished set play three minutes in on the right edge, the winger racing away to bag his 50 th career try.
Croker failed to convert before the Panthers found themselves in Canberra territory eight minutes later.
Anthony Griffin’s men would capitalise on the optimal field territory when Moylan sliced through, before a successful Cleary conversion handed Penrith a 6-4 lead.
The Panthers were gifted set after set off the back of a wealth of penalties midway through the opening term, but a resilient Canberra defence would deny them their second four-pointer of the evening.
Ricky Stuart’s men would follow it up with a barnstorming length-of- the-field set before Leilua pulled off a bell-ringer on Moylan 27 minutes in.
If there was any indication of Leilua’s hit having rattled the former Blue, Moylan put the Steeden out on the full in the following set.
A boil-over of tempers would follow on the stroke of the half-time siren when Joe Tapine and Harawira-Naera got under each other’s skin at a play-the- ball.
Tensions were high as a mass of Raiders and Panthers players flocked to the middle of the park, before Tapine and Harawira-Naera were both sent to the bin to conclude a heated opening stanza.
The Raiders will now use Round 15 bye to regroup before hosting the Brisbane Broncos at GIO Stadium the following week.