Matt Burton starred on debut for the Panthers against the Sharks on Friday night.
Matt Burton starred on debut for the Panthers against the Sharks on Friday night.

‘Best of the lot’: high praise for rookie Panther

ONE week ago, barely anyone knew who Matt Burton was - including his NRL teammates.

That all changed in Penrith's clash with Cronulla on Friday night when the 19-year-old from Dubbo put in a stellar performance on debut.

Burton was propelled from Jersey Flegg into first grade after James Maloney's tripping ban and made the most of his opportunity with a try assist, three tackle breaks, nine runs, 49m, one offload and 11 tackles.

"Words can't describe how much this means," Burton told Channel 9.

"To do that in front of all my family and friends and this bunch of legends, I can't ask for a better night. It's a dream come true.

"It means so much. When I was 16, my best mate passed away. This is everything to me. I know he'd be watching me and he's made me so proud.

Matt Burton was impressive on debut.
Matt Burton was impressive on debut.

"All these people … I'm speechless. It's crazy."

Burton got the call from coach Ivan Cleary on Tuesday night following Maloney's unsuccessful visit to the judiciary.

Jarome Luai (eye) and Tyrone May (stood down) were also unavailable.

Burton admitted there was "tears all around" when he called his parents to let them know of his impending NRL debut.

The NSW under-20s representative hadn't even trained with the NRL side or met the players until Wednesday.

"We had the training session and that was the first time I met the boys," he said.

"They welcomed me into the team. I just can't believe it."

Phil Gould, former general manager of football at Penrith, revealed his high hopes for Burton following the game.

"Young Matty Burton, last year he played in the under-18s national champions team, then went home and played for Dubbo in the A-grade grand final in his local area out there," Gould said.

"Tonight, he's got Shaun Johnson, a seasoned international, coming at him, throwing dummies.

"You've got people around him, the scoreboard's in the balance, the next-try-wins-type thing. These are pressure situations. This kid stood up to that tonight.

"I was so excited he got a chance tonight because he might be the best of the lot of them. He's such a controlled individual.

"He's got so much scope physically still to go and this is a kid who really knows the game at such a young age and he's got all the skills. He will mould into a great NRL player."

Matt Burton makes a tackle on Josh Dugan.
Matt Burton makes a tackle on Josh Dugan.

Burton wasn't the only Penrith debutant on show on Friday night, with Stephen Crichton and Spencer Leniu also making their first appearance on the big stage.

With Gould and ex-coach Anthony Griffin in rival commentary boxes, there were plenty of eyes on the stuttering club.

And there were more moments of anxiety after Cronulla dramatically reduced a 16-point deficit to 10 with 15 minutes to play.

A Sosaia Feki try in the 75th minute set up a grandstand finish.

But despite giving away 1356 games of NRL experience away, the Penrith cubs held on to snap their two-game losing streak and steal the Sharks' top-eight spot.

"It was exactly what I feared before the game when you have so many young guys and rookies, and that's pretty much exactly what happened," Cleary said.

"The clock was certainly moving slowly. Young guys struggle like that but we found something and showed a fair bit of character."

- with AAP

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