THE moment their guard fell down, so too did their season.
An injury-riddled Penrith Panthers Toyota Cup side was silenced 44-20 by the St George Illawarra Dragons at ANZ Stadium on Friday in an elimination final loss that ended their premiership campaign.
Despite opening the scoring in just the fourth minute, the young cubs who finished the season in fifth position and as the best defensive side in the competition were unable to out-muscle their eighth-placed opponents or the threat of eviction.
"I thought we were a bit poor in attitude in defence around the middle," coach Garth Brennan said.
"I was a bit surprised the way the result blew out, it was disappointing but it doesn't change how proud I am of the guys' efforts.
"It's been a long year. We've had a lot of injured troops — five guys didn't train up until the last session before the game — but we kept turning up for each other."
After blitzing their way to the top of the ladder earlier this year, the Panthers endured an injury plague that contributed to them losing seven of their last 10 regular season games.
The side's two regular halfbacks, Harry Siejka and Toby Evans, were sidelined on Friday. Brennan said, "at the end of the day, injuries probably cost us."
"It wasn't that the players who came in weren't up for it. It was continuity, confidence and momentum," Brennan said.
"A lot of hard work goes into getting to where you are but you need luck and we didn't get that with injuries at the end."
Looking back on the season, the former Newcastle Knights under-20s coach said watching his troops and seeing them cement themselves as the team with the competition's most ruthless defence were two of his biggest highlights.
"I've been involved with coaching for nearly 12 years and I can honestly say I've never been involved with a better group of young men with a better work ethic and attitude," Brennan said. "If they're the future of Penrith, Penrith is sitting in good shape."
Brennan will return to coach the Panthers' Toyota Cup outfit in 2013 and he said "hopefully we'll go a little bit further."
"I just hope Penrith fans appreciated some of the joy and excitement the young guys gave this year and I hope the boys did the fans proud."