Penrith Panthers beat Canterbury Bulldogs despite missing State of Origin stars
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Penrith Panthers beat Canterbury Bulldogs despite missing State of Origin stars

The Penrith Panthers have shrugged off the absence of six Origin stars to beat the Canterbury Bulldogs 30-18 and send an ominous warning to the competition that even without their biggest names, the reigning champions will get the job done.

Penrith Panthers beat Canterbury Bulldogs despite missing State of Origin stars

Nathan Cleary, Jarome Luai, Isaah Yeo, Stephen Crichton, Liam Martin, and Brian To’o all watched from the sidelines as Sean O’Sullivan and debutant Kurt Falls helped the Panthers do what they couldn’t do in their premiership season: compete in the period of origin.

The small premiership now seems within reach for Penrith, and the season is only halfway through; the Panthers are two games clear at the top, and they probably endured their toughest game of the year in terms of personnel changes.

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It was not all doom and gloom for the Bulldogs, who continue to find their attacking rhythm under interim coach Mick Potter.

Ex-Panther Matt Burton seriously shocked the local crowd in the second half, and his pairing with Josh Addo-Carr wouldn’t have gone unnoticed by Brad Fittler – the man who snubbed Addo-Carr from the NSW Origin team.

The Bulldogs had more possession in the first half, finishing on 90 percent, but still three tries behind the scoreboard; just as their superstar teammates have been all year, the second-tier Panthers were better at taking advantage of their opportunities.

“Apart from our adultery, I’m quite happy with our attack, but we’re just giving the other team too many chances,” Potter said after the game.

“We must build our resilience in our ‘D’ early on. It is not acceptable now, and we have to start better.”

Kurt Falls showed a radar-esque kick game, and alongside the criminally underrated Sean O’Sullivan, the Panthers started in the field position they needed to open a handy buffer in the first half.

Dylan Edwards and James Fisher-Harris kept the captaincy warm for Yeo and Cleary, and predictably, the pair were among the hardest working on and off the ball.

“Captaining the Panthers is special and close to my heart,” said Edwards.

The star power may have diminished, but there was no shortage of magical moments; recently re-signed winger Taylan May scored one of the most acrobatic attempts of his career to date, leveling with Ryan Papenhuyzen at the top of the table for try-scoring.

“I was happy with the week and the game,” Panthers coach Ivan Cleary said.

“At the beginning of the second half, we probably couldn’t build up pressure with our last moves, which we are normally very good at.

“But all in all, I was very happy.”

The exhausted Panthers’ victory raised a question almost too terrifying for the rest of the NRL to even consider: Are the mountain men even better equipped for a premiership this year than they were in 2021?

Penrith Falls for Kurt

Kurt Falls will remember June 3, 2022, for the rest of his life.

Falls teamed up with Nathan Cleary halfway through high school, but while Cleary has become a rugby league superstar, his old classmate has toiled in the junior grades and worked as a carpenter to pay the bills.

So when Ivan Cleary finally handed him his first-grade debut at the ripe old age of 25, Falls were understandably eager to make the most of his opportunity.

He put a pinpoint kick to the sidelines with his first engagement and, minutes later, chipped in front of his regular NSW Cup teammate Chris Smith, who crashed to score Penrith’s first.

When he converted the Panthers’ second attempt from the southern sidelines, Falls had won over the local crowd well.

“He was busy; he got out and ran straight away, got a kick, got a try assist, and scored a goal in the space of five minutes,” Cleary said.

“He also did well defensively. He should be happy with himself.”

Falls have no chance of making Luai or Cleary jump in half, and as he is out of contract next year, there is more than one NRL rival who would do well to step up.

The boyhood dream of Camera IconFalls came true on Friday. Image: Panthers Credit: The Daily Telegraph

Difficult to be Duff

Matt Dufty’s form has been turbulent since joining the Bulldogs this season, and everything came to a head before kick-off when interim coach Mick Potter dropped him from 17.

“Obviously, he wasn’t happy about it, but he was on the team tonight; he was on standby and happy,” Potter said.

“He’s a pro. He’s an opportunity to bounce back and be back in the frame.”

Potter named one-time Origin rep Corey Allan as the fullback, but Jake Averillo took over the role once the game started.

Dufty runs out of contract at the end of the season and could well test the open market, especially now that the man who lured him to the Bulldogs, Trent Barrett, is no longer the coach.

The small-back has already been linked with a move to the Warrington Wolves in the English Super League.

Unless he can impress Wayne Bennett, who has yet to sign an all-around fullback with the Dolphins, Dufty’s chances of getting a starting gridiron at a rival NRL club next year look slim.