The much hyped top-of-the-table clash at Teimurimotia Park on Saturday didn’t have the fiery start that was expected, but picked up momentum later in the match.
Panthers raced off to a healthy lead with two quick tries out wide in the opening 10 minutes of the match from a simple draw and pass backline movement.
Eighteen-year-old winger Tyron Marurai was at the receiving end, diving over for both tries to give the visitors a well-deserved lead. It didn’t take long for the backpedaling Bulldogs to come to their senses with burly Ozwell Tunupoupou and Clarke Ngaa leading the way.
Their blockbusting runs and offloads averaging the 20 metres, combined with perfect, quick ball handling from the backline out wide, placed their wingers Tim Tangarere and Emosi Tokovagi in the corner, bringing the score to 12-all.
The home side ensured they went into the break with their tails up after Tunupoupou barged through to give Bulldogs an 18-12 lead at the break.
“At the break it was obvious both coaches weren’t happy with their boys as their instructions echoed round the park,” Cook Islands Rugby League Association competitions co-ordinator Taua Benioni said.
The Darren Piri-coached Panthers hit back straight away at the start of the second spell with skipper Teina Savage leading the way with tackling and causing havoc to the Bulldogs defence.
Discipline caused the Bulldogs problems in the latter stages of the match with the sending off of their number 3 Sai Nagi for a retaliation infringement.
New recruited referee June Henry, who has been gaining praise for his superb game control, awarded three penalties, which allowed the Panthers to level the game18-all.
With the Bulldogs down to 12 players, the Panthers made a dash for the try line, taking advantage of an extra man.
Their relentless effort paid off after Maines Rongo crossed over followed by another penalty goal to give Panthers the 26-18 win.
“For the Bulldogs, when it comes to pressure football, discipline will prevail.
Panthers Teina Savage was named CIRL referees player of the day with Oozy Tunupoupou for the Bulldogs,” Benioni said.
In the other premier clash, Arorangi Bears missing key players suffered their biggest loss of the season going down 8-56 to a wounded Ngatangiia/Matavera Sea Eagles.
Sea Eagles remains at the bottom of table at four points alongside Takuvaine Warriors and the Aitutaki Sharks which recorded their second win on Friday beating Avatiu Nikao Eels 18-14.