Penrith coach Ivan Cleary warned his side still had plenty to do after they held top spot on the NRL ladder on Saturday with an 18-14 win over St George Illawarra.
The Panthers held off a fast-finishing Dragons to secure their fifth successive win and keep their mantle as surprise competition leaders, with centre Dean Whare scoring two tries.
In the end, Jamie Soward’s goalkicking was the difference against his old club with both sides scoring three tries in front of 13,768 fans.
A Jason Nightingale four-pointer in the 79th minute gave the Dragons some hope of an upset at the death, but the Panthers’ defence was too good to the delight of their home fans as they repelled the Red V’s final set.
Cleary praised the tenacity of his side but stressed they had plenty to do in the run home to the finals.
“They threw plenty at us and we were not handling it that well at times,” he said.
“It was a good experience for us. We haven’t really had that over the last few weeks and to come through it was good.
“We were guilty of turning over the ball too easily throughout the game. You invite trouble when you do that and that is something we have to address.
“We have a lot to do yet; we have some very hard games coming up. Our byes are close together so we have 11 games consecutive after our bye next week so it is a big tough run.
“There is much to do but we also feel we are making progress and tonight was another bit of that.
“It wasn’t all perfect by any stretch. We had some pressure on us and we somehow managed to hold them off.
“Having said that, we are going to have to do better than we did tonight.”
Whare scored tries in the fifth and 23rd minutes to give the Panthers a 12-0 lead before a 35th-minute touchdown to Charly Runciman led to a 12-6 halftime score.
Nightingale brought the Dragons closer three minutes after the break via a lovely pass from fullback Adam Quinlan.
The Dragons pressed the Panthers’ goal line again minutes later before Benji Marshall tossed the Steeden into touch on the first tackle from a scrum win. This released the pressure valve for Penrith.
Josh Mansour scored in the 54th minute, with Soward instrumental in the lead-up, and the Panthers looked home until Nightingale’s second gave them a sniff later.
The Dragons have won five games this year but caretaker coach Paul McGregor has declared it their best performance of the season.
“Sometimes you lose, but you win,” he said.
“Half our salary cap is at home sitting on the lounge with rep duty and injuries.
“I thought some of the football we displayed was really good attacking footy. I thought sometimes you lose, but you win and I thought we had a win tonight.
“That’s the best game we’ve played this year. We’ve just got to make sure we back it up next week.”