The Panthers have defied the odds with a stunning 34-22 victory over the Warriors at the temporary Manu Vatuvei Stadium in New Zealand.
A majestic performance from maestro Nathan Cleary was the difference as the Panthers battled contentious decisions and injuries to secure the win.
A horror start for the Panthers saw the Warriors cross over after just 75 seconds through Simon Mannering. A strong carry from Shaun Johnson created space for the supporting Mannering to give his side an early 6-0 lead following Johnson’s conversion.
The home side continued to ask questions following their opener but it would be the visitors who struck back after 12 minutes through Kiwi native Corey Harawira-Naera. The free-scoring backrower was first to a Cleary grubber to bring his side level.
That joy was short-lived as Solomone Kata burrowed his side back in front after fifteen minutes, catching the Panthers markers napping close to the line. Johnson’s conversion edged his side further ahead 12-6.
Waqa Blake should’ve returned serve to bring the Panthers level when he regathered a Cleary bomb but spilled possession reaching out to score.
Luckily they wouldn’t have to wait longer when debutant May marked his NRL debut with a try in the 25th minute. A sharp run from Cleary pierced the defence and found Merrin in support to offload to May for the simple put down as the Panthers drew level at 12-all.
As the game ticked past the half hour mark, the Panthers edged ahead through Cleary. The playmaker took advantage of the space afforded to him close to the line and reached over, before converting his own try to put his side 18-12 to the good.
A frenetic first-half nearly had its sixth try when Ken Maumalo crossed over in the corner but was denied by the Bunker for a knock-on.
HALF-TIME: NZ Warriors 12 – 18 Penrith Panthers
A scrappy restart from the Panthers led to the sin-binning of Harawira-Naera, however the decision was covered in controversy with the referee falling for Isaac Luke’s theatrics.
The refereeing continued to come under question when Cleary was obstructed in the lead up to Kata’s second try in the 47th minute. That decision allowed the home side to creep back to within two points at 18-16.
With the man advantage, the hosts took the lead after 53 minutes when Boden Thompson put the finishing touches on a last-tackle raid on the right edge. Luke’s conversion made it 22-18.
The momentum turned sharply in favour of the Warriors and they crossed over again on the hour mark but were denied by the Bunker for another knock-on.
The Panthers continued to dig deep to remain in the contest and they had their reward in the 66th minute when Cleary crossed for his second after some neat combinations from Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Dylan Edwards. Again Cleary converted his own try to give the visitors a 24-22 lead.
With the game firmly in the balance it would be the prodigious Cleary to take it upon himself to seal a backs-to-the-wall win with his first Panthers hat-trick.
A late try to Blake gave the centre redemption for his earlier error and added the icing to a vital victory in the race for a Finals spot.
FULL-TIME: NZ Warriors 22 – 34 Penrith Panthers