Were it not for Lachlan Lewis’ field goal and the Bulldogs’ one point win over the Warriors in Round 23, Saturday night’s elimination final would have been held in New Zealand rather than at ANZ Stadium. Nevertheless, this felt like a Warriors home game over the first twenty minutes, as the visitors ran rings around the mountain men, resulting in a pair of superbly executed tries.
The game actually started with a suspenseful moment for New Zealand, after James Gavet was floored by the second hit-up of the night, making serious contact with Reagan Campbell-Gillard’s forearm for what initially looked as if it might be an HIA, or even a serious neck injury. After a couple of minutes he got up and back into the game, but the Warriors overcorrected a little too emphatically, with Agnatius Paasi putting in a dangerous tackle on James Maloney while his boot was in the air, in an echo of Josh Ado-Carr’s move on Adam Reynolds at AAMI the night before.
With Nathan Cleary kicking for goal, the Panthers had the first two points of the evening, and yet Penrith found themselves scrambling to defend their line when Shaun Johnson intercepted an offload from Viliame Kikau and burst into open space. He looked certain to reach the line, despite a sterling chase from Waqa Blake, but slipped about ten metres out, bringing a temporary halt to the New Zealand momentum.
Whether it was the pressure of Blake’s chase, or the slipperiness of the pitch, this was just the letoff that Penrith needed, and they responded in kind by intercepting an offload from Fusitua, only to hand over possession once again for an offside penalty. On the third tackle of the next set, Luke popped his head up out of dummy half and took on Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, James Fisher-Harris, Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Trent Merrin to score just beside the uprights.
Every time Penrith have won the first try in 2018 they’ve won the game, while every time that Issac Luke has scored, the Warriors have won the game. This was an important rallying point, then, for New Zealand, and for Luke himself, who may have been raring for a grand final appearance more than any other player on the field after coming so close to starring in the Rabbitohs’ 2014 victory.
A penalty on Maloney for a slow peel shortly after gave the Warriors the platform they needed for their next stunning set piece. It started with a flick pass from Gavet to Johnson, who got it across to Peta Hiku in turn, before scooting around on the outside to collect the ball once again from Hiku, effectively creating a second, nested passage of play across to the Warriors’ right edge.
That sleight of hand took the Panthers’ left side utterly by surprise, allowing Johnson to get the footy across to David Fusitua just in time to score the Warriors’ second try in the corner. With Johnson also managing a challenging sideline conversion, the visitors were now two tries ahead, in what was starting to feel like a New Zealand home fixture.
It was clear that the Panthers needed to provide something special to get themselves back in the game, and Maloney provided it with a 40/20 – or, rather, an almost 40/20, since it forced an error from Roger Tuivasa-Sheck before the ball could properly cross the sideline. Taking his cue from his halves partner, Cleary responded with a perfectly weighted kick right on the try line, realizing that there was nobody waiting behind the ruck, and so sending the footy in deep past Blair and Luke, as Tyrone Peachey read the play perfectly and scooted in to ground the ball.
This was only the tenth try that the Warriors have conceded to a kick in 2018, and they were clearly disheveled by it, with Luke actually booting the Steeden out on the full for the restart, gifting the Panthers a piggyback as they took a fresh assault on the New Zealand line. They might not have scored on this set, but when DWZ broke through the line a couple of minutes later, it felt like part of the same momentum, just as this effectively felt like a pair of back-to-back tries for Penrith.
All of DWZ’s refinement over 2018 felt like a preparation for this moment, as the lean Penrith fullback slipped out of a low tackle from Adam Blair and a high tackle from Simon Mannering, before popping the ball out to Maloney at just the right moment, who slammed it to ground right beneath the posts before Jazz Tevaga had any chance of getting to him, setting up Cleary to slot through one of his easiest conversions of the year.
The score was now twelve apiece, thanks to a sustained resurgence from the Panthers that had been bookended by their halves combination. That combination has been one of the key factors in Penrith’s success this year, so it was crucial to see Maloney and Cleary communicating, organizing play and setting up points in this way. On the other side of the Steeden, the Warriors suffered a leadership blow thirteen minutes out from the half time siren, as RTS was taken off for the night with a medial ligament issue, although thankfully not the ACL that has plagued him in the past.
Seeing RTS led off the field and strapped around the knee created a pretty big void in the Warriors’ momentum, despite Peta Hiku’s efforts, and the Panthers took advantage of it to score almost immediately, with their most effortless try of the night so far – a clinical, professional passage of play that saw them ferry the football over to their right edge, where an unfortunate slip from Solomone Kata was the final ingredient needed for Peachey to cross over for a double.
While Cleary might have had a shocker with the boot against the Storm in Round 25 – none from five – he seemed to have got that out of his system, clocking through his third conversion of the evening to reclaim the Panthers’ six-point lead once again. That said, the Warriors got a pretty good chance a couple of minutes out from the siren, when Maumalo coughed up a Cleary bomb for what could have been a dangerous situation for New Zealand if Corey Harawira-Naera hadn’t been called offside .
Another offside penalty for Peachey towards the end of the next set gave the Warriors a further advantage, but with the medical attendants taking an age to patch up a bleeding nose from Harawira-Naera, all the New Zealand momentum vanished, as the mountain men got ample opportunity to regain their breath. With a dangerous tackle from Maumalo on Cleary coinciding with the half time siren, the Panthers had regained the first half, and came back onto the field in the second determined to continue that dominance.
They did, too, starting with a penalty after Bunty Afoa put in a flop to get the back forty minutes going. Luke may have followed with the hit-up of the night on James Maloney – a crushing, brutal, low tackle that eventually saw the Penrith half lifted above the horizontal – but this would turn out to be the last big gesture made by the Warriors over the rest of the game. In any case, that huge effort from Luke lost all its import after Peta Hiku bobbled the high ball, lost it, and was then dragged in goal by Mansour and Blake, after looking up for one split second too long as the Steeden was careening through the air towards him.
That paved the way for five straight sets for the Panthers, with Hiku himself conceding two more dropouts, and a repeat set of six providing Penrith with yet another shot at the line. Each time, New Zealand went for a short or shortish dropout, and each time Penrith contained it, with Yeo and Katoa making hard short runs at the line in quick succession during the fourth set.
On the fifth set, the Panthers moved the footy rapidly to the left edge of the field, but Blake found himself with nowhere to go, and headed back on the inside, shifting it across to James Tamou, who responded with a rapid play-the-ball that set up one of the silkiest passages of play of the evening. It started with Katoa, who sent the ball across to Cleary, who got it, in turn, to DWZ. From there, Dallin put in a massive wide ball to Peachey, who set up Christian Crichton to score in the right corner.
Another sideline conversion from Cleary brought Penrith to a twelve point lead, and while they wouldn’t score another try, they utterly dominated this second half, partly because the Warriors were exhausted by this sustained period of defence, and never seemed to recover from that exhaustion, losing all their impetus and organisation over the final thirty minutes.
Their most ragged set probably came about twenty minutes out from the end, and Maloney made the most of it to slot through a field goal just to be safe – one of the last points of the night, as it turned out, but no less emphatic or convincing for that. From this point on, the Panthers set out to simply continue exhausting New Zealand, finishing their sets clinically, avoiding kicking for scrums, and dominating possession and field position with one relentless assault after another.
The very nadir for New Zealand came with yet another dropout for Penrith. Despite the fact that short kicks hadn’t reaped any rewards for the visitors, Johnson chose to go short once again – but this time it was too short, resulting in a surreal sequence in which play stopped as both sides waited to see whether the Steeden would bounce across the ten metre line. It didn’t, and so Maloney chose to take the two, bringing the game to an unusual scoreline of 27-12 to finish off the match.
A disappointing end to their season, then, for the New Zealand Warriors, although that can’t take away from the gravity of Simon Mannering playing his final match in the NRL. On the other side of the Steeden, this was an absolutely resounding comeback for Penrith after their spotty form over the last couple of weeks, since they’re now playing as well as they did at the beginning of the season – a promising sign indeed as they get ready to take on the next couple of weeks of finals football.