As the teams made their way into the sheds at half-time, Tom Trbojevic gingerly made his way up the tunnel to seek treatment on what appeared to be a hip or lower back injury. By then, opposing fullback Dylan Edwards had already scored three of his four tries.
Despite the game effectively being over, Trbojevic came out for the second stanza. As the wisdom of risking Manly’s most prized asset was being debated, the fortunes of the respective No.1s – and their sides – remained unchanged.
Edwards would now have to be in the conversation as the best player not to have played representative football. The Clive Churchill medallist was everywhere, the biggest beneficiary from a series of pinpoint passes from Nathan Cleary. Trbojevic, meanwhile, bagged a late try, but it was of little consolation.
The result – a 44-12 Panthers shellacking in front of a sold-out BlueBet Stadium, was a statement of intent. While all the focus has been on Wayne Bennett’s newbies and the never-ending dramas at Concord, Penrith is quietly going about the business of chasing a third-straight title.
Having been played back into form against Canberra last weekend, the mountain men have found another level. Until now, their campaign has been underscored by the grand final stars, for various reasons, not available on Saturday night. While Api Koroisau, Viliame Kikau, Taylan May, Liam Martin, James Fisher-Harris and Charlie Staines didn’t run out against the hapless Eagles, there is still enough star power to threaten any side.
For proof, look at the opening half of football. Enjoying an unprecedented 73 per cent of possession and spending 81 per cent of the time in the Sea Eagles half, superstars Cleary, Edwards, Brian To’o, Stephen Crichton and Isaah Yeo proved unstoppable.
Dylan Edwards dives over for his second try as Tom Trbojevic looks on.Credit: NRL Photos
Other Panthers also made their mark. It wasn’t quite the bath that Siosifa Talakai gave Morgan Harper last year, but Izack Tago dominated his opposing centre, running for 147 metres in the opening 40 minutes. To Harper’s credit, he didn’t allow Tago to add a single metre to his tally by full-time.
It was a rare positive for a Sea Eagles side that lost Karl Lawton to a shoulder injury and Reuben Garrick to a category-two concussion. Perhaps nothing summed up their night more than when Brad Parker, playing in a side struggling to defuse Cleary’s bombs, responded to a towering kick by booting it back to the opposition.
Anthony Seibold’s men were limited to just 257 running metres in the opening half. They made a contest of the second, which ended in a 12-all deadlock, but by then the damage was done.
It was the seventh straight win the Panthers have enjoyed over the Silvertails. More significantly, it was irrefutable evidence, to those wondering whether they could remain a force after losing so many players, that a ‘three-peat’ remains possible.
Tom Trbojevic looks dejected as the Panthers run in five tries in the first half.Credit: Getty
The early season resurgence of Manly, meanwhile, will be put into further context when they face Melbourne next week. Their hopes could well rest on just how fit Trbojevic is when he runs onto Brookvale Oval. It was a tough night for Sea Eagles fullbacks; news broke just before kick-off that Brett Stewart was charged with a drugs offence.
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