Junior Eels comeback falls just short at Penrith
The Parramatta Eels Jersey Flegg side mounted an impressive comeback against the junior Panthers at Penrith Stadium but after drawing level late conceded the final try to go down 24-18.
Eels coach Dean Feeney will be left to rue a number of missed chances in the first half in a match where the home side simply did better at taking their opportunities than the Blue & Gold.
Despite falling behind four tries to one at one stage, the Eels mounted an impressive comeback to score level on via a quick two-try blow midway through the second half before an error from the restart allowed Penrith to land the killer blow late in the match.
Halfback Dylan Brown was impressive both with ball in hand and with the boot, scoring a solo try, kicking dangerously in general play and kicking three from three – including a crucial sideline conversion – off the tee.
The junior Eels looked to make a statement in the opening set of the game as they rolled downfield then swarmed in defence off a nice Dylan Brown kick to force Penrith into a goal-line drop out.
Unfortunately winger Michael Cheer's foot grazed the touch-line as he looked to open the scoring off the ensuing set to let Penrith off the hook before a piggyback penalty forced the Eels into a defensive set.
Penrith centre Shannon Harris outjumped his opponents to plan the ball for an early 6-0 advantage to the home side.
The Eels continued to miss opportunities; bullocking centre Tuimavave Afualo couldn't quite ground the ball over the Penrith line in the 10th minute then a first-tackle error in a full set at the Penrith line in the 12th minute again let the Panthers off the hook.
They eventually made the Eels pay in the 22nd minute; a clean line break through the middle was defused by a brilliant try-saver from Cheer but the blue and gold defence couldn't re-set in time to stop Penrith centre Zac Ryan latching onto a wide kick from Thompson to make it 10-0.
Penrith continued to give the Eels opportunities by making errors in their own half and the pressure finally told when fullback Dylan Brown did it all himself, showing great strength and speed to slice through Penrith's left-side defence in the 29th minute before converting his own try from out wide.
The Panthers struck a major blow on the stroke of half time when Cheer – who had a strong game to that point – spilled a tricky Penrith bomb and in the following set Ryan offloaded to right-side winger Brian Too who crashed over to give the home side a 14-6 advantage at the break.
The Eels made a disciplined start immediately after the resumption but Penrith weathered the storm before the blue and gold errors crept back in and back-rower J'maine Hopgood stepped through some worryingly flimsy left edge defence to make it 18-6.
Halfback Isaac Thompson's third successive miss off the tee kept the Eels within two converted tries and it proved crucial when they mounted some pressure football midway through the half which culminated in prop Sean Keppie crashing through under the posts to bring it back to 18-12.
The Eels got a lift from that try and quickly got back in range. Fullback Haze Dunster – who was held up on Penrith's left edge attempting to score a first half try – made his second shot count, carrying a few defenders over with him in an impressive 58th minute try.
Brown's clutch sideline conversion levelled the scores with 10 minutes to play.
The Eels were bundled into touch from the kick off then forced into a goal-line drop out with Penrith reclaiming the lead shortly after as Keppie couldn't quite defuse an attacking grubber and Thompson pounced.
The Eels seemed to lift a gear in the final five as they tried desperately to find a final level-up and threw plenty of shape at the Panthers but the home side held firm to close out a 26-18 win after kicking a penalty on the stroke of fulltime.
Penrith Panthers 26 (Harris, Ryan, Too, Hopgood, Thompson tries; Thompson 3 goals)
Parramatta Eels 18 (Brown, Keppie, Dunster tries; Brown 3 goals) at Penrith Stadium.