The Penrith Panthers have made it seven wins in a row to move into the top 8 after they thrashed the Dragons by 40-16 at Panthers Stadium tonight.
Penrith put on their most impressive victory of 2019, where they scored four quick tries in the second half to blow St George Illawarra away, after the game was in the balance with the home side leading 16-12 at the break.
The halves combination of Nathan Cleary and James Maloney had a field day against the hapless Dragons defence, with Cleary scoring a try and having a hand in two more, while Maloney set up two himself, with both players taking advantage of a constantly retreating Dragons defensive line in the second half.
Much of the pre-game talk was the decision from St George to rest star halfback Ben Hunt with the Red V's season on the line and given the Dragons effort, coach Paul McGregor and his coaching staff are sure to come into some criticism given the lacklustre performance.
The home side dominated possession in the early stages, and were rewarded when five-eighth James Maloney rolled the ball in behind the line on the last. Rookie winger Brian To'o then scored a spectacular try by diving for the ball and grounding the ball with one hand just before the ball rolled into touch in goal. Nathan Cleary then hit the upright from the sideline and Penrith led 4-0.
Penrith continued to dominate possession and hooker Mitch Kenny then fooled the Dragons defence with a deft grubber from dummy half which caught the St George defensive line napping. This allowed centre Brent Naden to ground the ball first and extend the home side's lead to 10-0 following Cleary's conversion.
St George needed a spark and the introduction of interchange player Luciano Leilua did that, when the backrow forward found himself in the halves due to a Darren Nicholls HIA. Leilua then delivered a beautiful pass that sucked in two defenders and found centre Euan Aitken who made a simple draw and pass for his winger Mikaele Ravalawa to score in the corner. Corey Norman converted from the sideline and the Dragons were back in it, trailing 10-6.
The home side then hit the lead, when from dummy half Cameron McInnes found Leilua, who burst through the Panthers defensive line before finding his speed man in Matt Dufty. Dufty was brought down just 10m out, but off the next play, interchange forward Josh Kerr charged into an enormous gap to score next to the posts. Norman converted and St George led 12-10 with minutes remaining in the first half.
Panthers winger To'o then stepped up again, when the Panthers #5 turned back on the inside to beat four defenders to score a sensational second try next to the posts and give the home side the edge at halftime by 16-12 following Cleary's conversion.
Following the break, the Panthers scored quick tries through Moses Leoata and Cleary, who dived on a superbly timed kick from halves partner Maloney to extend the lead to 34-10 following Cleary converting his own try.
Things then got out of control for the Red V, when fullback Matt Dufty spilled a towering bomb from Cleary. The NSW number seven then counted the numbers to the left-hand side and threw a classic cut out pass for Naden to stroll over for his second try and increase the lead to 32-12.
James Maloney then rubbed salt into the wounds, when he laid on a beautiful ball for his front rower Reagan Campbell-Gillard to score untouched under the posts. Cleary's conversion made in 40-12 with 17 minutes remaining.
Panthers man mountain Viliame Kikau was then sent to the Sin Bin for a dubious shoulder charge on Dragons half Darren Nicholls, which saw the Fijian international take a seat on the pine. Dragons front rower Paul Vaughan then took advantage for his side by crashing over next to the posts to narrow the Panthers lead to 40-18 to secure a late consolation try.
The red hot Panthers now face the Canberra Raiders in Round 19, in what promises to be an absolute blockbuster next Sunday afternoon at Panthers Stadium.
St George will be in for a tough week after they slumped to a third straight loss and things don't get any easier, where they face bitter rivals the Rabbitohs at ANZ Stadium next Friday night.