Penrith have taken out their second under-20s trophy in three years after outgunning Manly 34-18 in the first curtain-raiser on NRL grand final day.
In his first season as a head coach, former Newcastle forward Cameron Ciraldo guided the Panthers to 23 wins from 27 games, including a grand final performance they controlled from start to finish.
On a scorching spring day that almost hit 35 degrees, it was the Panthers who applied the heat, jumping out to a 12-0 lead inside the first 15 minutes and then holding the Sea Eagles at arm’s length the rest of the way.
Twice, the pre-match favourites were forced to defend Manly raids.
First, a try to Manly second-rower Luke Garner in the shadows of halftime cut the deficit to four points, but the Panthers regained the ascendancy by crossing for the first two tries in the second half.
Sea Eagles prop Liam Knight gave his team some hope with a line break in the 72nd minute, but Penrith held firm again to deliver Ciraldo his maiden title in his debut year.
Coaching had never looked so easy.
“Seven minutes left there, it wasn’t easy,” Ciraldo said after the match.
“It’s been a long journey. There’s been a lot of hard work go in throughout that time.”
At the start of 2014, Trent Barrett held the clipboard for Penrith’s junior side before being officially appointed two months ago as Manly head coach.
Ciraldo said after going through Sunday’s match, he was unsure if he had the same aspirations.
“When Ivan gave me this job, I said I just want to have a crack and see if I’d enjoy it,” he said.
“I am really enjoying it but, after going through the stress this week, I don’t know if I could go to that level.
“I just got really proud to be involved with this group of kids.”
Penrith led 16-12 at the main break but should’ve been in front by more after controlling most of the first half.
Direct running from Soni Luke and Tyrone May gave the Panthers a two-try advantage inside the opening quarter, before Manly star Tom Trbojevic hit back with his 29th try in a combined 22 NRL and under-20s games.
Penrith’s own NRL graduate, Robert Jennings, restored the double-digit margin, only for Garner to pull it back again in the 37th.
Panthers centre Maliko Filino took the lead out to 22-12, before halfback Jarome Luai came up with the try of the match with a Shaun Johnson-like individual effort in the 60th minute.
With regular halves partner Nathan Cleary away on Australian Schoolboys duty, Luai also saved a certain try nine minutes later.
Penrith winger Fuimanu Enese sealed the win in the 77th minute.
Luke was handed the Jack Gibson medal as man of the match.
“It means a lot, especially with Jack Gibson’s name attached to it,” Luke said.
“I see it as a sign of respect to win the award.”
Ciraldo predicted a big future for his successful side, with all 17 players who took the field on Sunday staying with the club next season.