Panthers skipper Nathan Cleary has returned to the NRL in the best way possible, leading his side to a convincing 27-8 win to take his side to just one game away from a chance to defend their title on Grand Final day.
With the Panthers holding onto a slender lead just after halftime, Parramatta suffered a crushing blow when halfback Mitch Moses left the field with concussion following an awkward tackle on Villiame Kikau. Cleary made the Eels pay almost immediately, laying on two tries and kicking a penalty goal to leave their bitter rivals looking for answers after the game was taken away from them by the NSW halfback.
Parramatta will rue their lost opportunities in the first half despite having their fair share of possession. However, the loss of Moses and a whopping ten errors in the second half cost the visitors any chance in competing in the match against a clinical Panthers outfit.
Penrith came into the match heavy favourites, however it was a sluggish start for the defending premiers with Moses forcing two repeat sets in a row. However, things went sour for Penrith when winger Taylan May was sent to the Sin Bin for a high tackle on Eels centre Viliami Penisini.
Being a man down had little effect on the Panthers though when Eels winger Waqa Blake put down a towering Nathan Cleary bomb. The ball was then collected by James Fisher-Harris who found his fellow front rower Moses Leota with a skilful flick pass. Leota then kept his cool and got the pill to an expert finisher in Brian To'o to score the first try of the night. Cleary converted and it was Penrith out to an early 6-0 lead.
Parramatta were still in the contest but failed to convert their chances with a mountain of possession. That was until hooker Reed Mahoney produced a neat face ball out of dummy half to find interchange forward Oregon Kaufusi who scored next to the posts to get the visitors on the scoreboard. Moses converted and scores were locked at 6 all.
With minutes remaining in the first half, it was Mitch Moses who attempted to take the lead through a field goal, which just went wide. Penrith then took the ball upfield and it was Nathan Cleary who took the shot on the stroke of halftime to give his side a slender 7-6 lead at the break.
Parramatta regained the lead early in the second half through a penalty against Panthers prop Spencer Leniu for a high tackle on Isaiah Papali'i. Parramatta took the gift two points on offer and were back in front by 8-7.
The home side managed to regain the lead when Brian To'o scored his second try following some nice hands from his right edge in Cleary and Stephen Crichton. To'o with plenty of work to do managed to crash over with three Parramatta defenders hanging off him. Cleary then nailed the conversion from the stripe to make it 13-8.
With Parramatta fighting to stay in the match they were dealt a catastrophic blow with halfback Moses being taken from the field with concussion and he played no further part in the game.
Panthers skipper Nathan Cleary then took the game by the scruff of the neck in Moses' absence, firstly kicking for Dylan Edwards to collect the bounce to score next to the posts. This was followed by a bust from last year's Clive Churchill Medallist, who then took on the line and produced a terrific flick pass for his front rower James Fisher-Harris to score and give his side a commanding 25-8 lead.
Cleary then added a penalty late to give his side Penrith's largest ever semi-final win, running out victors by 27-8 and head into a preliminary final where they are one step away for a chance to go for back-to-back premierships in a fortnight's time.
Parramatta need to put their second half performance behind them, as they await the result of the Melbourne Storm vs Canberra Raiders final tomorrow evening.