IT might only be a pre-season competition but with the way Bathurst Panthers took out Saturday's Group 10 premier league knockout final against Orange CYMS they've already marked themselves as the team to watch this year.
Panthers put in a dominant performance to down CYMS 24-4 on their home turf at Carrington Park.
The scores remained at nil-all for the first 15 minutes of the match but once Panthers found their first try in the lead up to half-time they never handed momentum back to CYMS.
Led by standout performances from Nick Loader, Keelan Bresac and Jake Betts the Panthers' post-contact metres were a decisive blow, while the Orange men were often their own worst enemies - producing several kick-off clangers.
Betts said the defensive effort of the opening 15 minutes laid the platform for Panthers' victory.
"It was good, especially after having such a long time away with last year's comp being off. Everyone's been turning up to training and working on their sets, and I when things broke down today we got back into attack," he said.
"That's something that even over the last couple of years we haven't been doing that well at, so that's really promising in that department.
"What won us the game was that we kept coming. We didn't really score a lot of points at the start but that's where we broke their backs. Credit goes to CYMS because they kept coming and turning up. They're a great side."
CYMS skipper Dan Mortimer said it was good just to get some minutes in the legs, and he's got plenty for the team to take a look at heading into the Group 10 season.
"It's been a long time. Twelve months away then three games in one day is a tough ask but I was proud of the boys. We were struggling to field a team by the end of it because we had a couple of boys go down," he said.
"We have to try and take some positives out of it. There's a few things we need to address obviously but that's what this time of year is for.
"There were a couple of opportunities - we got ourselves back in the game at 10-4 - but then we dropped it off the kick-off. A couple of those little execution things let us down.
"Having to D-up after doing a lot of work was tough. We didn't take our chances and they made us pay."
Panthers didn't take long to find their way towards the CYMS try line as they came close to opening the scoring on two occasions inside the first four minutes.
The hosts got close to the line again after a Betts run and offload put Loader into space, but one too many offloads on the next play led to another error.
CYMS almost scored against the run of play in the 13th minute when Josh Board found space through the middle of the park, though a mistake two plays later ended that chance.
Panthers made full use of a penalty on their next set of six as they brought the ball right up to the CYMS try line once again.
This time they were able to make the most of the chance when Loader found space under the posts to dive over and score.
Joey Bugg scored for Panthers two minutes before the break to apply some added pressure to CYMS.
Panthers nearly scored right after the break through Charlie Hutchings but a forward pass was called.
The Orange men were able to cut the margin back through Adam Stanford seven minutes after half-time.
However, a kick-off error handed the ball back to Panthers in dangerous territory and Kevin Large was able to score a soft try. Josh Rivett's conversion made it 16-4.
CYMS' kick-off woes continued when they put the ball out on the full, and were once again immediately punished.
This time it was Rivett who was the beneficiary of an excellent ball which put him right through the middle of two CYMS defenders.
Panthers saved their smoothest try of the day for the last two minutes of the game.
Quick hands and accurate passing out to the left wing created an overlap and Desi Doolan was on the scene to deliver the knockout blow next to the corner post.
BATHURST PANTHERS 24 (Nick Loader, Joey Bugg, Kevin Large, Josh Rivett, Desi Doolan tries; Rivett 2 conversions) defeated CYMS 4 (Adam Stanford try)
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