Leading 26-22, the Eels had to work overtime to keep the Panthers at the bay in the dying stages of the match.
The Panthers came out firing, but lacked the finishing touch required to get the winning try as the Eels held on to win the feature match of the round 26-22.
But it was the visitors who started on a high in the crucial clash, scoring the opening try through Damian Iroa.
A well-structured play saw the side work neatly along the flanks before feeding the ball to Iroa, who cut inside and dived over for the try before kicking the extra points to lead 6-0.
Minutes later winger Jovilisi Naqitawa burst through, along the sideline to score a try in the corner to extend Panthers’ lead to 10-0.
Eels looked clueless as they failed to breach the Panthers defence wall with their barrage of attacks.
Their relentless effort finally paid off after lanky winger Lai Rogorogoivalu scored a try to trail 6-10 at the break.
The home team looked sharper early in the second spell as the side scored three tries through Rogorogoivalu, Samu Alafua and Stanly Tuaivi to lead 20-10.
The Panthers were left scrambling for possession before regaining their first half form to score under the post.
With Iroa’s conversion, the team cushioned their deficit to 16-20.
A moment of brilliance from the speedy Alafua saw the Eels extend their lead to 24-16 before Panthers scored another try to put the match within their reach 24-22.
With time running out, the Panthers conceded a penalty close to their tryline and Eels slotted the two pointer to lead 26-22.
Despite a last-gasp effort from the Panthers, the Eels held on to win 26-22.
The win sees the Eels go to the second spot on the points table with 13 points. The Panthers also have 13 points, but a lower points difference than the Eels.
Eels coach Albert Nicholas was content with the win.
“This game, as I mentioned before, was not going to be a walkover for us and our performance against the Sea Eagles on Monday wasn’t going to count for anything,” Nicholas said.
“As expected, Panthers came out very strong and very smart. But I thank the players for sticking together; we can’t ask for more than just a win. At the end of the day, rugby league was the winner, so we are happy.”
Panthers coach Darren Piri was gracious in defeat, congratulating the Eels for the win.
“It was a tough game. Both sides wanted to win but the best team on the day came out wanting it more,” Piri said.
“Hat off to my boys: they kept them there which shows both teams were up on the same par in fitness wise but we need to just top it up a bit for our remaining matches.”
In the other premier match, Titikaveka Bulldogs defeated Arorangi Bears 27-22 to go top of the points table on 14 points.
Ngatangiia/Matavera Sea Eagles beat TKV Warriors 18-12 in another close match.
- Rashneel Kumar