Just over a week after winning the 2022 Hostplus Cup, the Norths Devils were unable to continue their winning run onto the big stage, after they went down 44-10 to the Penrith Panthers in the NRL State Championship at Accor Stadium.
A resilient Norths outfit fought until the end in the opening match on Sunday, scoring tries through Tony Tumusa and Rashaun Denny in the 64th and 73rd minutes respectively.
But without a number of their star players, including halves Tyson Gamble and Tyrone Roberts, and last week's match winner in Brayden McGrady, the Devils struggled to capitalise on their opportunities and faltered in defence.
Despite their efforts to stay in the game, it was just not enough to shut down a dominant Panthers outfit, led by exciting youngster Sunia Turuva and veteran prop Matt Eisenhuth.
Match: Panthers v Devils
NRL State Championship -
Venue: Accor Stadium, Sydney
Turuva ran for 247 metres and had 11 tackle breaks while Eisenhuth racked up 155 metres and had a try assist as the Panthers won the State Championship for the second time.
The Panthers looked to have opened the scoring in the fifth minute when Turuva picked up the scraps and plunged over after the Devils had made a mess of a high ball but the winger was ruled to have pushed one of the catchers in the contest and the try was disallowed.
Three minutes later the NSW Cup champions had the lead when Soni Luke put in a clever grubber kick out of dummy half and J'maine Hopgood followed it through to score. Kurt Falls' conversion made it 6-0.
Jacob Gagan had a chance to hit back for the Devils in the 28th minute but dropped the ball over the line and a minute later the Panthers had their second when Soni Luke exploded out of dummy half from 10 metres out, threw a couple of dummies and plunged over under the sticks.
From here, the Panthers took control.
Eisenhuth then took the ball to the line and delivered a perfectly timed pass for Eddie Blacker to score and the Panthers were out to an 18-0 lead.
Six minutes into the second half the Panthers extended their lead when John Faiumu poured into a hole to make it 22-0.
Luke showed his smarts out of dummy half again two minutes later to put Robert Jennings in for his 10th try of the season as the Panthers started to exert their superiority.
The Panthers went down to 12 men in the 61st minute when Luke was sin binned and after defending a set on their own line they stormed to the other end of the field and Luke Sommerton showed nice deception to cross for the sixth try of the day. Falls converted for 32-0.
Devils centre Tumusa grabbed his team's opening try in the 64th minute when second-rower Leivaha Pulu produced a clever between the legs pass to put him into space.
Luke made his mark immediately upon his return from the sin bin, putting in a neat grubber kick which Hopgood regathered to score his second try of the day.
Norths halfback Jack Ahearn capped a fine game when he put winger Denny over for a late try with a superb cut-out pass. Connor Broadhurst's conversion made it 38-10.
Turuva then put the icing on a brilliant performance when he crossed wide out and Faiumu converted to make it 44-10.
- The Panthers lost Chris Smith and Jack Cole in the 28th minute when both were sent for a HIA after a head clash. Both players failed their HIA.
- Panthers prop Matt Eisenhuth played the first 40 minutes unchanged, running for 118 metres from 13 runs while lock J'maine Hopgood had 12 runs for 119 metres in the first half. Hopgood finished with two tries and 203 metres.
- Preston Riki proved a handful for the Devils defence with 152 run metres and 10 tackle breaks.
- Panthers hooker Soni Luke was sent to the sin bin in the 61st minute for a professional foul.
- Panthers winger Sunia Turuva scored two tries in the semi-final win over the Jets and two tries against the Bulldogs in the NSW Cup grand final and made it five in his last three games with a late four-pointer.
- The Devils came into the game on a seven-game winning streak, including their last four regular season games and three finals matches.
- Devils fullback Jack Ahearn chalked up his 21st try assist of the season when he put Rashaun Denny in for a late try.
- Panthers prop Matt Eisenhuth and centre Robert Jennings have 175 games of NRL experience between them.
- The last time the State Championship was played in 2019 it was the Newtown Jets getting home in a thriller over the Burleigh Bears. The game wasn't played in 2020 and '21 due to the COVID pandemic.
Play of the Game
The Devils did it tough all afternoon but they came up with a piece of razzle dazzle in the 64th minute when Leivaha Pulu produced a between-the-legs pass to send centre Tony Tumusa over for their first try. Call it tunnel ball, call it audacious, call it a nice moment for the Hostplus Cup champs as they fought it out to the end.