NRL Qualifying Final - Panthers v Eels
PENRITH, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 09: Brian To'o of the Panthers celebrates with team mates after scoring a try during the NRL Qualifying Final match between the Penrith Panthers and the Parramatta Eels at BlueBet Stadium on September 09, 2022 in Penrith, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

The Penrith Panthers have survived a first-half onslaught from the South Sydney Rabbitohs to set up a tantalising grand final derby against Parramatta next Sunday.

But they’ll now have to wait nervously on judiciary grading for Viliame Kikau and Jarome Luai after both players were put on report for a shoulder charge and high tackle respectively, both on Campbell Graham.

The opening of the first half was a demonstration of game management by the Rabbitohs, absorbing pressure in defence and making with ease up the middle through the likes of Jai Arrow and Cameron Murray, and they were on the scoreboard within 12 minutes.

Though it was far from stylish, Cody Walker broke the deficit as the first player to the loose ball after Mark Nicholls’ attempted no-look offload was smothered by Penrith players and forced into the in-goal.

Richard Kennar scored the second in the 18th minute following a sweeping move to the left that has become such a staple of the Rabbitohs attack over the years. No Alex Johnston, no worries. South Sydney were rolling.

The Panthers were clearly unsettled, struggling to make an impact and being undone by some silly mistakes when opportunities presented themselves. They had multiple tries disallowed in quick succession as they scrambled to get back into the contest.

Latrell Mitchell’s obsession with short drop-outs continued and almost proved immediately costly, with Viliame Kikau strolling over before the play was overturned again by the video referee.

The Panthers were severely lacking in inspiration before outgoing dummy-half Api Koroisau created something out of nothing following a rapid-fire play the ball from Kikau to open their account.

Despite being tackled by three defenders, Koroisau cleverly utilised the slippery conditions to drag the ball onto the line behind his own body and breathe some life into the defending premiers.

Within four minutes they were in again in remarkable fashion after Brian To’o picked up a deflected intercept off Campbell Graham.

The wrecking-ball winger ran straight upfield, but instead of trying to escape Cody Walker, put on an incredible fend that sent the Rabbitohs five-eighth sprawling into the path of the chasing Mitchell and Damien Cook. Despite a horrendous start, the Panthers went into half-time level. It was a cruel blow.

The defending premiers continued their assault immediately after the break, with Stephen Crichton going within inches after a penalty played the defending premiers down the park within two minutes of the restart.

That set ended with a Kikau charge-down on a kick from Lachlan Ilias, putting the Panthers right back on the attack. A few tackles later a Cleary grubber found its way through, and Spencer Leniu proved an unlikely winner in the race for the ball to give Penrith the lead for the first time.

Though the Rabbitohs had some pressure on the Panthers’ line shortly after, Penrith were in again within minutes following a set that started with a miraculous run from the club’s Player of the Year – Dylan Edwards.

Edwards seemed to be made of vapour, beating tackle after tackle with ease as he sauntered downfield. They kept rolling and Luai set up Izack Tago with a perfect grubber to go over untouched and give the Panthers some breathing room.

Any chances the Rabbitohs had of a comeback of their own were dealt a huge blow in the 65th minute after Leniu again broke the line, before being collected in a three-man tackle that included a bruising high shot from Taane Milne.

Milne was sent off immediately, with Leniu cleary irate at the reckless challenge as both players left the field. Cleary duly converted the penalty for a 14-point lead with just 15 minutes remaining.

From there South Sydney started to make uncharacteristic errors, though the Panthers will also be disappointed with their focus at points in the closing stages.

Though Nathan Cleary went over with ease to emphasise the result in the final two minutes, it's clear the defending premiers already have their minds on the challenge that waits ahead.

PENRITH PANTHERS 32 (Nathan Cleary, Brian To’o, Spencer Leniu, Apisai Koroisau, Izack Tago tries; Nathan Cleary 6 goals) defeated SOUTH SYDNEY RABBITOHS 12 (Cody Walker, Richard Kennar tries; Latrell Mitchell 2 goals)