With a home field advantage at stake, the game was explosive from the get-go, as the Eels aimed to avenge their 23-18 loss from earlier in the season.
It was a thrilling game of rugby as both teams used their strengths and threw the ball around, with both backlines cutting loose on a number of occasions.
Eels players and supporters may rightly feel a bit hard done by with the loss, as the only difference between the two sides was goal-kicking, with the visitors missing both conversions and a number of penalties.
They also have themselves to blame, as they should have won in spite of the missed goal-kicking opportunities, and were numerically disadvantaged for a large portion of the game, losing three players to the sinbin for tackle offences.
Late in the match when the Eels camped on the Panthers’ try line, they neglected to use their potent backline to break through and instead opted for a “pick and go” strategy.
The Panthers’ ruck defence was able to repel them and ultimately force them into mistakes, leaving Eels winger Samu Alafua exasperated as he was open on the far side, calling for the ball to be spread wide to no avail.
The decision is even stranger considering how devastating the Eels backline, particularly the right hand side, was when given the ball in space.
Both of their tries were scored from long distance, as midfielder Vahe Leki and Alafua were able to dot down from exceptional tackle breaking and ball skills.
However, as they have shown all season, the Panthers will bend but not break as they will themselves to victory, a strength that coach Andrew Iroa was pleased with after the match.
“We showed a really strong team mentality on the field today.
“That bond they have, the strength of character and togetherness really shone through today. That was what got us over the line.”
Much of the game was fought in the middle of the park, as the teams battled for supremacy in the forwards.
Aware of the potent threat that the Eels backline posed, it was smart to try not match them tit-for-tat, as they adjusted their defensive game plan to try and negate the threat. This largely worked outside of the two tries that were scored.
Although the Panthers backline was typically troublesome, the only try they scored was through quick thinking from flanker Filipo Schmidt.
When awarded a penalty five metres out, he took a “quick tap” and pushed his way over the try line, much to the surprise of the Eels.
The remainder of the Panthers’ points came via the left-boot of halfback Othneil “Aussie” Joseph who kicked two penalties in the first half and also converted their lone second half try.
Best players for the Eels were speedy right wing Samu Alafua, who caused all sorts of problems with ball in hand, busy hooker Tepaki Ngaoire and hard-working lock Louis Nicholas.
Best players for the Panthers were action man loose forward Schmidt, whose work rate both on attack and defence was outstanding, halfback Joseph whose service was sharp, and Number 8 and Captain Thomas Toa who led his team by example.
The Eels led at halftime 10 – 6.
With the round robin finished, both teams will play each other again in the playoff stages, and although the Panthers have defeated the Eels twice already this season, Iroa was confident that the team would not get complacent.
“Because it is finals time, the team knows that this is the business end of the season, these are the wins that count.”
In the round’s other matches, Arorangi Cowboys defeated the Ngatangiia Dragons by 39-0.
Standout players for the Cowboys were hooker Francis Smith, who scored 3 tries, and halfback Spoon Marsters, who has put his name down as one of the best players in the competition with his tenacity and leadership.
The best players for the Dragons were their halfback Fale Sooialo and number 8 Willie Kauvai Jnr.
The Cowboys led 29-0 at halftime, and though the Dragons improved in the second half, they may be glad that this ends what was a very difficult season.
Down at Titikaveka Field, the visiting Takuvaine Reds won a closely-fought match 22-19 against the Titikaveka Bulls.
The Reds kicking a late-penalty goal to win this match, and will go into the playoffs on a winning streak.
Best players for the Bulls were inside centre Sailosi Nagi and halfback James Tofilau and for the Reds – loose forward Christian Hosking and utility back Viiga Ruepena.
Tupapa Panthers: 13 - Try: Filipo Schmidt Conversion; Othneil Joseph Penalties: Joseph (2) Avatiu Eels: 10 - Tries: Vahe Leki, Samu Alafua