As the sun set on the 2019 regular club season at least the Panthers know the future looks pretty good despite losing their Origin and premiership-winning half James Maloney.
The Panthers bid 'au revoir' to the France-bound playmaker in a comprehensive 54-10 win over Newcastle at Panthers Stadium on Sunday. The game had sloppy defence including 44 missed tackles from the Knights, but plenty of razzle dazzle to balance things out.
The sight of hulking second rower Viliame Kikau flirting with the touchline and checking his boots were not on the chalk as he flicked a pass back inside for hooker Wade Egan to score was one such moment.
But even more pleasing for coach Ivan Cleary will be the fact that eight of his side's nine tries were scored by players aged 22 or under – and that included four by his 21-year-old son Nathan. Then you add his nine conversions and that gave him 34 points for the game, beating the Panthers club record for most points in a game of 30 set by Michael Gordon back in 2010.
Match: Panthers v Knights
Round 25 -
Venue: Panthers Stadium, Penrith
- Nine Network
- LIVE PASS
The 33-year-old Maloney certainly leaves behind a squad with some real talent: Stephen Crichton is 18, Jarome Luai 22, Brian To'o 21, Egan 22, Spencer Leniu 19 and Billy Burns 20. They were all in the thick of the action on Sunday. Burns, who is the ninth debutant for the Panthers this year, scored two tries in just his second NRL game.
The match had no bearing on the finals but since it was the very last club game for the Telstra Premiership season, it seemed appropriate there was plenty off-the-cuff, unstructured football.
It took more than a quarter of the game before any points were scored.
The visitors were first to the punch in the 23rd minute, when 19-year-old debutant Starford To'a intercepted a Dylan Edwards pass and ran 70 metres down the eastern sideline. That was the highlight of the afternoon for the team from the Hunter.
It must have sparked the home side as they rolled in three tries within 11 minutes, including the first two to Cleary. He danced around three defenders to score by the posts for his first, then dummied and virtually strolled over for his second.
In between winger Brian To'o provided further pizzazz by dodging and weaving around five Knights then dragging two more over the try line.
The Panthers led 18-4 at half-time but after the break sharpened their claws even more, while the Knights produced some very feeble defence.
Cleary breaks through and beats Ponga
Frustration at the one-sided scoreboard probably led to No.9 Connor Watson's niggling, which ultimately led him to the sin-bin in the 57th minute after repeat efforts in a tackle. The Panthers piled on four tries while the Knights were down to 12 men, including Cleary's third and fourth of the afternoon.
In all the excitement of a rapidly ticking over scoreboard, it was almost forgotten it was Maloney's 247th and final NRL game. He wasn't among the points but no surprise he was flavour of the night as the fulltime hooter sounded as his teammates swarmed him in a huddle.