CONFIDENCE building victories don't come much better than success against a minor premier side to secure a home semi-final.
Bathurst Panthers couldn't have asked for a much better outcome in their final round game of the Peter McDonald Premiership on Sunday as they came away 20-12 winners over the Mudgee Dragons at Carrington Park.
Regardless of the result Panthers would have found themselves in an elimination semi-final, but the victory means that instead of a trip to take on the Wellington Cowboys the team will now get to host the Nyngan Tigers for the knockout clash.
Panthers laid the foundation for Sunday's success with a defensively rock solid start to the game, holding the Dragons to a rare scoreless opening first half while picking up three tries of their own.
Dragons threatened to make a comeback during a much improved second half's play - and took advantage of a sin bin to McCoy White - but the hosts' defence continued to be their strong suit as they held on for the win.
The return of Doug Hewitt to the Panthers lineup was a very welcome presence in a crucial game.
The halfback said the Panthers-Dragons contest is always one that the team psyches themselves up for.
"Mudgee are always one of our biggest competitors. We always have real good clashes with them," he said.
"There's been a bit of feeling there ever since the grand final a couple of years ago so it's always great getting the upper hand on them, that's for sure.
"The last couple of weeks have been games that weren't as competitive, and ended up being blowouts, so it was great to have a really good hit out going into the finals."
The Panthers' four tries on the weekend were split evenly between five eighth Nicholas Tilburg and winger Jesse Limon.
Limon's brace took his year's tally to 10, making him the equal best regular season try scorer for Group 10 alongside Orange Hawks' Ryan Manning.
Hewitt said the work rate off the ball from the Panthers was something to admire.
"They had the majority of the ball so it all came down to our defence. It's probably the best we've been all year. We just kept showing up for each other," he said.
"We still have a couple of little things that we need to fix up but we made the most of the opportunities that came our way and we backed ourselves in defence.
"Once we had control of the game we just had to game manage, and I thought we did that pretty well. Mudgee came with a late surge but we put the dagger in them towards the end when Ice Man [Tilburg] scored the try."
A start in the Dragons clash wasn't 100 per cent locked in for Hewitt at the start of the week as he monitored an injury.
But he picked up as the week went on and enjoyed the chance to take on one of the club's biggest rivals on such an important day.
"It was touch and go at the start of the week but at training I felt really good and everything was ready to go," he said.
"You want to try and have a team and stick with it but we've had a few coming and going. The best thing with our team is that when players slot back in it's like they don't skip a beat."
Hewitt's availability across the finals series will be a talking point for the Panthers should they progress past Nyngan next weekend.
He'll be available for the Tigers match but Hewitt confirmed his priority will lie with his harness racing duties, especially with the $2.1 million race, The Eureka, on the horizon next month for his horse Ripp.
BATHURST PANTHERS 20 (Nicholas Tilburg 2, Jesse Limon 2 tries; Josh Rivett 2 conversions) defeated MUDGEE DRAGONS 12 (Billy Carberry, Jackson Littlejohn tries; Lleyton Lothian 2 conversions)