The Cowboys warmed up for the finals with an emphatic 38-8 defeat of a brave but outclassed baby Panthers outfit at QCB Stadium on Saturday night.
North Queensland superstar Valentine Holmes scored a hat-trick of tries before being given an early mark midway through the second half, while hooker Reece Robson was outstanding.
However, what would have impressed Cowboys coach Todd Payten the most was the patience they demonstrated while wearing the undermanned Penrith team down.
With the Panthers resting 13 players after being awarded the JJ Giltinan Shield last week, it would have been easy for the Cowboys to lose focus but they needed to win to keep alive their hopes of claiming second spot and a home final.
The young Penrith players showed a lot of character after being on the wrong side of a 9-4 penalty count and the only three six-again calls of the match, while having to play a man down when centre Thomas Jenkins was in the sin-bin.
Their effort was best exemplified by prop Eddie Blacker's chase to run down Cowboys fullback Scott Drinkwater and save a certain try in the final seconds of the match.
Blacker makes the play of the night
Impressively, Penrith's NSW Cup team won their semi-final against Norths Bears on Saturday, despite having most of their regular squad playing for the NRL team in Townsville.
The Panthers host the fourth-placed Eels next weekend, while the Cowboys will meet the Sharks but the venue for the match now depends on whether Cronulla beat Newcastle on Sunday.
If the Sharks win it will be at PointsBet Stadium but if they lose the Cowboys will finish second and host the match at QCB Stadium.
Match: Cowboys v Panthers
Round 25 -
Venue: Queensland Country Bank Stadium, Townsville
- It took just seven minutes for the Cowboys lethal left edge to roar into action when Chad Townsend combining with Scott Drinkwater and Val Holmes to send winger Murray Taulagi flying over in the corner for a try.
- Holmes got his first try 15 minutes later when a Tom Dearden kick deflected off the outstretched hand of Christian Crichton and the Cowboys superstar caught the ball before strolling over to score.
Holmes doubles the advantage
- Drinkwater was the next to score after hooker Reece Robson split the defence with a dummy half run from his own side of halfway and drew fullback Charlie Staines before sending his fullback racing for the tryline.
- Drinkwater then created a gap for Holmes near the Panthers line with a pass across the face of Luciano Leilua and the North Queensland centre had his second try to put the home side ahead 20-0 in the 31st minute.
Holmes too strong
- The Panthers struck first in the second half when halfback Sean O'Sullivan put centre Robert Jennings over in the 44th minute but normal service resumed soon after
- When it did, it was that man Holmes who crossed again after fielding a kick in his own in-goal, racing to the 20-metre line to tap the ball quickly and send Kyle Feldt racing away before backing up to score at the end opposite end.
- Fiji winger Sunia Turuva, who starred for the Bati in the mid-season representative round, scored Penrith's second try to reduce the deficit to 26-8 in the 64th minute.
Turuva opens his NRL account
- The Cowboys hit back almost immediately after a Tom Dearden kick bounced awkwardly for Charlie Staines and Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow pounced on the loose ball to score.
- Reece Robson was then rewarded with a much deserved try after swooping on a loose off-load from prop Jordan McLean to score in the 70th minute as the scoreline began to blow out.
Robson gets a well deserved try
Play of the game
After leading 20-0 at halftime, the Cowboys conceded the first try after the interval but Valentine Holmes quickly ensured they didn't lose their way with quick thinking and individual brilliance that saw him start and finish a length of the field try.
Holmes hattrick in 80 metre special
What they said
"That was a really mature performance, it is difficult coming up against a team missing so many players but our focus was really good, I thought we started really well, we scored some good tries and defended well for the most part. To the Panthers credit they kept on competing and had a red hot crack, which is the sign of a good club," - Cowboys coach Todd Payten.
Cowboys: Round 25
"We have got a good pathways system, we have got a lot of people doing a lot of hard work and I think the guys can hold their heads up tonight. We knew we were going to be facing a lot of challenges throughout the game and for the most part, if we conceded a try we didn't get our heads down and that didn't roll into more points. There were a lot of lessons for the boys tonight. We are grateful to be in this position, back in the finals and playing at home against a great western Sydney rival, so these are the times you want to be involved in," - Panthers coach Ivan Cleary.
Panthers: Round 25
The Cowboys face the Sharks in the opening weekend of the finals but must wait to see whether Cronulla win in Newcastle on Sunday before knowing whether the match is played in Sydney or Townsville.
The Panthers will host Parramatta next weekend and coach Ivan Cleary confirmed that he would welcome back the 13 stars rested from the trip to Townsville as well as halfback and captain Nathan Cleary after a five-match suspension.