The Panthers retained their competition lead with a 22-14 win over the Titans but not before the home side made them earn it with a gritty fightback full of character.
Penrith’s nine wins and a draw to be on 19 competition points is their best start to a season through 11 rounds.
The difference between the two teams was ultimately the vision of Penrith halfback Nathan Cleary who spotted overlaps on three occasions to swing their attack into gear and make the most of the advantage.
The 17 players that took the field for Penrith was the most inexperienced fielded by any club this round and boasted just 968 games between them due to the club’s mounting injury toll.
Experienced forwards James Tamou, James Fisher-Harris and Isaah Yeo stepped up to be pivotal in the win.
Match: Titans v Panthers
Round 11 -
Venue: Cbus Super Stadium, Gold Coast
The Titans made some late changes with Keegan Hipgrave and Sam Lisone out with shoulder problems and Erin Clark omitted to give him a freshen-up, replaced by Sam Stone, Nathan Peats and Jai Whitbread.
There were moments in the second half where the Titans threatened to cap a weekend which started with the announcement of the signing of David Fifita on a three-year deal with a famous victory.
Fifita will be joining a side which is playing with heart and soul for coach Justin Holbrook and building a foundation that the Maroons forward will only add to.
Mansour finishes off a movement to the left
The Titans gave the Panthers an invitation to score in the early stages by making multiple errors and the visitors obliged.
Cleary and Jarome Luai showed how dangerous quality halves can be when they link together, and the duo combined to put Josh Mansour over in the left corner.
The Panthers were without left-edge wrecking ball Viliame Kikau but had joy attacking down that left corridor. Cleary and Luai were soon at it again with Fisher-Harris slotting into a sweeping right to left play to send Stephen Crichton away to score.
Penrith threatened again but Luai’s grubber rebounded for Jamal Fogarty to scoop it up and race more than 90 metres for a try against the run of play and cut the deficit to six points.
The Titans lost a captain’s challenge when the NRL Bunker ruled an Ash Taylor hand had knocked the ball forward as Liam Martin offloaded. Minutes later Isaah Yeo, showcasing the form that has him in the frame for a NSW debut, danced his way through feeble defence and stretched out to give the Panthers a 16-4 lead.
Gold Coast have shown this year they don’t drop their heads easily and were soon back in the game when a perfectly weighted Taylor grubber was planted just before the dead-ball line by Brian Kelly.
The crowd chanted “Titans, Titans” as the home side finished the half on fire. Fogarty and Taylor’s passing game went up a notch and Dale Copley stepped his way to within inches of the line before an alert Anthony Don barged over near the cornerpost to have the Gold Coast trailing 16-14 at the break.
Fogarty with the jet boots
Cleary noticed a chink in the defensive line in the 60th minute and spun the ball right where Brent Naden sent Malakai Watene-Zelezniak over with a pass that had Titans players remonstrating with the referee that it was forward.
The Titans did not give up and went close with several attacking raids but several precision Cleary kicks ensured the Panthers were able to keep the Gold Coast where they wanted them in the closing stages.
Fogarty said the Titans "fought hard" but took some of the blame for the loss himself.
"I think the lack of execution with good kicks from myself let us down in the back end of the second half," he said.
"We are still building as a team and myself as an individual, but the experience of Nathan Cleary was [the difference]. He executed all of his kicks. Hopefully in a few more games to come, that is going to be us."
Crichton cruises over
Panthers coach Ivan Cleary was of two minds when told his side had recorded its best start through 11 rounds in its history.
"That is worth celebrating. That is great, but you don’t get a prize for it at the moment," Cleary said.
"The biggest thing I am happy with is our consistency with different personnel."