BATHURST Panthers have taken the outright Group 10 premier league lead after winning one of the fieriest clashes of the season against Mudgee Dragons at Carrington Park on Sunday.
Panthers prevailed 23-20 to remain the only unbeaten team left in the competition but not before the Dragons pushed them to the limit.
In a game that should serve as the definition for 'game of two halves', Panthers shot out to a 16-0 half-time lead before the Dragons gave the hosts a huge scare across a half full of penalties, dangerous tackles and scuffles.
"The first half was unreal and we completed at around 90 per cent. We knew what we had to do in the second half but things began getting frustrating for them, they started niggling at us, we got caught up in it and we shouldn't have responded," Panthers player-coach Doug Hewitt said.
"Our boys showed a fair bit of character out there today and we showed that we've got each other's backs. The way they stood up when all of that was going on was great."
Dragons coughed up the ball on their first set of the day and Panthers punished them instantly when Josh Rivett ran in for an unconverted try in the corner.
Poor discipline from the visitors allowed the Panthers a full set inside the Dragons 10m but the Mudgee men repelled the effort with several try saving tackles.
Just as Dragons were gaining both possession and field position Panthers' Kevin Murray killed that momentum with a piece of individual brilliance.
The Panthers centre found a line break on his own 30m and no-one was going to catch him as he scored a converted try near the uprights.
Dragons had two line breaks on their left wing inside the last 10 minutes of the half but on both occasions the pass back to the inside went to ground.
With just 80 seconds to go before half-time Murray scored his second try of the day when a razor sharp pass put him straight between a pair of Dragons defenders.
The second half began just like the first - with a Dragons error leading to a Panthers try on the next set.
Willie Wright chased after his own grubber kick and beat the Dragons defenders to the ball to score.
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Mudgee's long wait for points finally came to an end in the 47th minute when a missed tackle gave Corin Smith plenty of room to score on the right edge.
On their next possession Dragons sent the ball in the same direction and, with the help of some great footwork, Harrison Maynard's converted try got the score back to 22-10.
The physicality then got turned up a notch.
Several fights almost broke out after dangerous hits from both teams while errors and penalties piled up for both camps.
Murray was on the receiving end of a spear tackle, Panthers' James Higgins was penalised for a late hit and Dragons' Chanse Burgess was sin binned for a later incident.
Wright's field goal in the 74th minute helped the hosts take time off the clock while Maynard and Tim Condon picked up consolation tries.