The Parramatta Eels exploded out of the blocks in their tantalising Sunday afternoon clash but conceded 24 unanswered points to go down 24-14 to an impressive Panthers outfit at Penrith Stadium.
The Eels looked on track for a big score on the back of a Josh Hoffman double and cheeky solo try to Corey Norman inside the opening half hour but Penrith rallied to spoil the eagerly-awaited return of 200-game milestone man Jarryd Hayne, who was playing his first game in blue and gold since 2014.
The Eels launched a ferocious assault on the Penrith line to start the contest and were unlucky not to score in just the third minute through Hoffman when it was found a Mitch Moses bomb travelled forward from his hand into Tyrone Peachey before he grounded it.
Ignoring a free two points from a penalty shortly after, the Eels' attacking mindset paid dividends as Hoffman made it second time lucky after receiving the ball in space from a lovely Moses long pass.
The Eels suffered a blow when Moses was forced off for a HIA in the 14th minute but luckily the Lebanon international was cleared to return later in the half.
While he was off, Penrith were denied a try to Mansour when Peachey obstructed Hoffman in the lead-up before some wonderful deception from Corey Norman allowed the five-eighth to step past James Fisher-Harris and score.
The Eels continued to camp inside Penrith territory and Hoffman bagged his double when Brad Takairangi – who came on at five-eighth when Moses went off before moving to right edge back row – fired a perfect cut-out pass to leave Mansour stranded.
Despite dominating the first half, the Eels took a lead of just eight to the break courtesy of two missed conversions and a late solo try to Waqa Blake, who got through Manu Ma'u before beating French one on one to keep things relatively close at half time.
A poor pass inside Eels territory from Kane Evans early in the second half proved costly as VIliame Kikau wound up and trampled through the Eels left edge to make it 14-12. The big Fijian went on a one-man wrecking mission from that point, causing all sorts of havoc with a few half breaks and eventually creating the chance for Cleary to edge the Panthers ahead via two penalty goals – the second of which came from Moses being sin-binned for a professional foul.
Against 12 men the Panthers went further ahead when Blake got his second, finishing off a long-range movement and leaving the Eels a big hill to climb at 22-14 with 20 minutes to play.
Even once Moses's return brought the ledger back to 13 players on each side the Eels struggled to get anything going against a physical Penrith side that found its second wind and a raft of untimely errors made it impossible for the blue and golds to get any momentum.
Cleary added a third penalty goal late as Penrith ran out 24-14 winners despite the contest finishing three tries apiece.
Penrith Panthers 24 (Blake 2, Kikau tries; Cleary 6 goals)
Parramatta Eels 14 (Hoffman 2, Norman tries; Moses goal) at Penrith Stadium.