The Canberra Raiders have suffered a narrow 26-22 defeat against the Penrith Panthers in front of just under 15,000 people at GIO Stadium today.
Anthony Griffin made many changes before kick-off, Tim Browne moved into the starting line-up as Reagan Campbell-Gillard moved to the bench. James Fisher-Harris slotted into lock replacing Moses Leota and Trent Merrin was named on the bench.
Ricky Stuart made no changes to his side, keeping the same seventeen that thrashed the Warriors in New Zealand last week.
The Raiders made a poor start to the match as an error in the opening set gave the Panthers a great opportunity to strike first points. A nice right side play from the visitors saw Penrith centre Waqa Blake cross over for the opening try. A successful conversion from Cleary gave them a 6-0 lead after four minutes.
The following five-minute period evened up as both teams completed strong sets, however a dropped cross field kick from Canberra gave Penrith another great opportunity to post points. A ruck penalty given away by Blake Austin gave the Panthers the opportunity to make their lead eight and Nathan Cleary made no mistake with the penalty goal.
The Raiders tempo and aggression increased however for the following five-minute period and it paid dividends. A nice left side move from Canberra handed Nick Cotric the ball with plenty of work to do. His strong effort saw the Raiders get their first try of the day as he barged over in the corner. Croker missed the conversion and the score remained 8-4 to Penrith after twenty minutes.
With fifteen minutes to go until half time a clever right side move from inside their own half from the Panthers put Waqa Blake into space. After a forty-metre run he found Cleary on the inside and the Halfback ran into score the Panthers second. Cleary converted his own try to give the away side a 14-4 lead.
The later stages of the first half became a nitty gritty affair until the Raiders hit back through a strong run from Dave Taylor. A great offload from the Coal Train found Josh Papalii on the line as the second row crossed for the Raiders second. Croker converted the try and the score became 14-10 in favour of the visitors.
Momentum shifted back in favour of the away side right on the stroke of half time as winger Josh Mansour ran infield from twenty metres out and found a hole, eventually grinding his way to the line to score the Panthers third try, giving them a 20-10 lead at half time.
The Raiders needed to be first to score in the second half and full back Jack Wighton did just that. A strong run down the right edge saw him grind his way to the corner to put the Raiders back with-in six points. Croker converted from the sideline and the score became 20-16 in favour of the away team.
Momentum certainly changed during the middle stages of the second half as Jack Wighton received a grubber on his own line and ran 70 metres to a screaming home crowd before being tackled. This resulted in a penalty to Canberra as the away side were offside a few plays later. That set the Raiders levelled the match, as second row Joe Tapine ran a straight line to pierce the Panthers defence. Croker converted the try to put the Raiders up by 2 points with 23 minutes remaining in the match.
The Panthers soon found themselves deep on the back foot as an Aiden Sezer 40/20 kept the Raiders sword swinging. The away team fought the Raiders off for two consecutive sets and which meant a grinding last 16 minutes would be on show.
With ten minutes to go the Panthers grew an extra tooth, applying consistent pressure on the Raiders line. The pressure eventually became too much for the home side as the Panthers scored next to the posts thanks to a solo effort from Tyrone May. Cleary converted and the score was 26-22 with 5 minutes remaining in the match.
Playing for their season the Raiders had to throw everything at the Panthers. With two minutes to go the home side were awarded a penalty for a high tackle forty metres out. It was a now or never set for the Raiders however the Panthers avoided a swinging sword to close the match out 26-22.
The win for the Panthers all but guarantees them a spot in the finals as for Canberra the task becomes all but impossible, having to now rely on other results for both the last two weeks, to give them any chance of making the final eight.
Canberra Raiders 22 (Cotric, Papalii, Wighton, Tapine, Croker 3/4) def by Penrith Panthers 26 (Blake, Cleary, Mansour, May Cleary Pen, Cleary 5/5)