THE Newcastle Knights lost the game but no admirers as the Panthers continued their unbeaten start to the season with a 24-6 triumph at Penrith Stadium on Thursday night.
The Knights were in the game until the 68th minute, when a rare defensive lapse from a scrum win allowed Penrith fullback Dylan Edwards to score between the posts. Nathan Cleary's goal gave the competition front-runners an 18-6 lead and a firm grip on their seventh straight win this season.
Six minutes later, Penrtih winger Brian To'o scored in the corner to ice the result.
Newcastle will at least feel there were plenty of positives to salvage from their performance.
The Knights conceded the first two tries and appeared to have little answer to Penrith's early dominance.
Slowly but surely, however, the visitors worked their way into the contest.
As former Knights legend Andrew Johns observed in the Channel Nine commentary booth: "They were wobbly, the standing eight count. But they hung in and hung in."
Newcastle's persistence paid off in the 30th minute, when five-eighth Kurt Mann poked his head through the defensive line and linked with winger Starford To'a.
To'a broke clear and, with only Dylan Edwards to beat, produced a classic fend that left the Penrith fullback sprawled on the turf.
Knights fullback Kalyn Ponga converted, and the 10-6 scoreline remained intact until half-time.
Penrith's two first-half tries were created by playmakers Cleary and Jarome Luai respectively.
In the fifth minute, Cleary grubber kicked into Newcastle's in-goal and centre Stephen Crichton won the race to ground the ball.
Fourteen minutes later, when Luai threw a sweet short ball and centre Matt Burton burst through to score, the Panthers looked well on their way to a 13th successive win on home soil.
Newcastle, however, were in no mood to roll over and gradually started applying pressure to the Panthers, at one point earning a series of repeat sets midway through the first half.
Some of the defence was brutal as Daniel Saifiti and Tyson Frizell, in particular, caused their Penrith counterparts plenty of problems.
Newcastle, who went into the match with the 11th-best defensive statistics in the NRL, were matching the seemingly impregnable Panthers set for set.
There was a close call for the Knights in the 50th minute, when To'o stretched out in a tackle to force the ball over the goal line, only for the video referee to penalise him for a double movement.
Ten minutes later, Mann saved the Knights by getting a hand on the ball, just as Luai looked set to send Burton in for his second try of the night.
The Panthers extended their lead to 12-6 in the 64th minute when the Knights were penalised for offside and Cleary added two points.
It was the first time Penrith and Newcastle had played since round three last season, when they fought out a memorable 14-all draw.
IN OTHER NEWS:
AAP reports: Kevin Walters dropped million-dollar man Anthony Milford to reserve grade last week but said it will take a lot more than what he delivered for Souths Logan to get him back into the NRL side.
For the second week in a row the ex-Queensland Origin star has not been named in Brisbane's NRL side as he fights for not just his spot, but his future at the club.
Last week was the first time in Milford's 185-game NRL career he was dropped to reserve grade, but it didn't have the immediate impact Walters was looking for.
The Magpies were done 39-22 by Norths Devils with Walters watching on - and he wasn't impressed.
Milford had seven runs for 85 metres, three-tacklebreaks, a missed tackle and an error in the loss.
"Last week, it was a tough game," Walters said on Thursday.
"I was out at Souths and watched it ... if I was to be honest, no he wasn't up to the standard that we believe he can play at.
"But that's one game of four or five, however many it takes for him to get back to the football we know he can play."
Without him the Broncos put in their best performance of the season in their loss to Penrith last week.
And coupled with Milford's performance for Souths Logan, it makes his path back into the NRL side even more difficult.
"It won't be my decision, it will be Anthony's decision as to whether he makes his way back into the team or not," Walters said.
"He has been given some clear instructions about what he needs to do. When he does that he will be back into the side.
"He needs to continue to do what Milf can do well and that's the points I made about ends of sets, and running game and defence."
Off-contract at the end of the season, Milford is looking at a significant pay cut if he is to stay at the Broncos as he's indicated he wants to do.
His axing from the NRL side comes as the Broncos look to cement their halves combination for next year and beyond.
Off-contract halfback Tom Dearden has been linked to North Queensland although the Broncos are confident of retaining him, while Adam Reynolds and Mitch Moses have both been on the club's radar.
Moses has an option in his favour to stay with Parramatta next season and has less than three weeks to enact it as the sides prepare to face off in Darwin on Friday night.
It will give the Broncos an up close look at the Eels halfback, although Walters denied he was interested.
"Nah, we are very happy with our situation at the moment ... trying to sign Kotoni and having a good look at Tommy Dearden as well," he said. "We don't anticipate losing Tom."