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Underestimate Us At Your Peril -
Penrith coach John Lang delivered a warning to his team's premiership rivals after the Panthers ended Brisbane's 2003 National Rugby League season with a spirited comeback win in the fourth qualifying final at Penrith Football Stadium.
Underestimate the minor premiers at your peril.
Under-rated Penrith went into the playoffs with the second-worst defensive record of the eight finalists. With Newcastle's elimination, the Panthers now hold the unwanted distinction of having the most brittle defence of the six surviving teams.
But having watched his side pile on 24 unanswered points and keep the Broncos scoreless for the final 50 minutes of today's impressive 28-18 victory, even Lang admitted to being more convinced about the Panthers' title credentials.
"One thing we do know is we can score as many points as any other side in the competition," he said.
"So they're going to have to defend very well also."
The Panthers rallied from a 14-point deficit late in the first half to run out five-tries-to-three victors and earn next weekend off.
Under the complex McIntyre finals system, Penrith's success also allowed Canberra to live to fight another day and Lang, one of the gentlemen of the NRL, admitted to giving a thought to Raiders coach Matthew Elliott when the Panthers trailed 18-4 after 38 minutes.
But a try to Penrith interchange forward Ben Ross just before the break turned the match, leaving the home team behind by just eight points with a strong breeze at their backs in the second half.
"I was very confident at halftime that we could go on with it," Lang said.
"It was very hard running into that wind in the first half. We just had to hang in and keep going forward."
After a fortnight's break to recover from any niggling injuries, Penrith will meet the winner of next Saturday's first semi-final between Canberra and the New Zealand Warriors for a berth in the October 5 grand final.
Lang confirmed Penrith would have hooker Luke Priddis (punctured lung) and second rower Tony Puletua (knee) back on deck for the preliminary final, while fellow back-rower Joe Galuvao would also be fine after bruising his hip. The Broncos, on the other hand, can start planning its end-of-season holiday after being unable to crack the Panthers after dominating the first hour to establish their 14-point advantage.
But, while shattered skipper Gorden Tallis lamented his side's inability to get over the line, Brisbane coach Wayne Bennett had few complaints, saying the Panthers were worthy minor premiers.
"They were good. They were behind the eight-ball there but kept at it," Bennett said.
"The halftime try helped them. If they hadn't have got that, I'd like to think that perhaps in the second half we would have dug the hole a little bit deeper for them.
"But they showed enough character and quality out there to show they deserve to be where they are. They had to dig deep today ... they're certainly not a shallow football team."
Penrith hit the front for the first time when goalkicking centre Ryan Girdler intercepted a Ben Ikin pass and raced 60m to score in the 53rd minute.
A Scott Sattler try 14 minutes from time sealed the victory.
"That's one win. There's a couple of wins to go now," said Penrith captain Craig Gower, who refused to get carried away.
"It was a good effort and we've now got a couple of weeks to get over the injuries and work on a few things and the break will be good."