St George Illawarra were hoping to be celebrating their legendary back-rower and Immortal Norm Provan with a win but it was a star Penrith forward in his 100th NRL game that stole the show in a 20-16 victory for the premiers.
Viliame Kikau helped himself to two first-half tries at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium before the Dragons almost chased the Panthers down, with a late try to Zac Lomax setting up a frantic final four minutes.
They did manage to keep Penrith scoreless for 40 minutes, which is no mean feat.
“In the end I was proud of the boys the way they hung on. We made it hard for ourselves because the Dragons were coming at us with nothing to lose,” Panthers coach Ivan Cleary said.
The pre-game festivities were dedicated to Provan, who passed away last October, with the western grandstand at Kogarah named in his honour.
A similar tribute will be held at the next Kogarah game for another Dragons Immortal, Johnny Raper who died in February.
However, on Friday it was Kikau that was in his element.
He made the surprise trip to Sydney by his Fiji-based family for his 100th NRL game worthwhile, charging down a Ben Hunt kick in the 10th minute to run 40 metres untouched.
His second try was trademark Kikau, when he charged onto the ball on the left edge to barge over for a try.
Cleary said he had concerns the emotional jersey presentation to Kikau by his brother Jope on the eve of the match might have drained the second-rower.
“It was our fault but it was such an amazing moment, such a special scene,” Cleary said.
The Dragons have other worries than simply trying to fix loose execution.
Hooker Andrew McCullough could be on the sidelines for an extended period after dislocating his left elbow.
He had a premature end to his 2021 season with a serious ankle injury last August.
Back-rower Jack Bird suffered a bloodied nose and was forced from the field by the NRL’s independent doctor in the bunker.
For Penrith, prop James Fisher-Harris (shoulder) only lasted 24 minutes and winger Brian To’o (knee) hobbled off.
The Panthers scooted out to a 20-6 lead at halftime, taking advantage of Dragons forward Jaydn Su’a being in the sin bin while Lomax also spent time off the field for foul play after the break
“With the ball we were just way too clunky… playing 20 minutes with 12 men killed us,” Dragons coach Anthony Griffin said.
“But I was proud of their effort even though we’ve got a bit to fix up.
“To beat them 10-0 in the second half after everything we’d gone through was a massive positive for us.”
Two players – Penrith’s Sean O’Sullivan and Bird – were ordered from the field for concussion tests.
“There’s a feeling like it’s a bit uncertain at the moment. It’s probably hard for the fans but hard for the players too,” Cleary said.
“We all know what the game is trying to get to but personally I just don’t think that you can have someone, who is not here, to actually make those decisions.
“There’s perfectly good medical staff at the ground.”
Tariq Sims made his return to first grade while George Burgess, in his NRL comeback game, could come under the match review committee microscope for late and high contact on Jarome Luai.