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The Warriors are back in the NRL finals for the first time since 2011!

They bungled their first opportunity to seal their place in the post-season via an agonising loss to Canterbury on Sunday, but they grasped their second chance with two hands – racking up their highest score of the season in a 36-16 thumping of Penrith.

A dazzling display from Shaun Johnson, a David Fusitu’a treble, a stellar return from Tohu Harris and superb goal-line defence were the standout features of an outstanding all-round team performance against an admittedly ragged Panthers outfit.

The Warriors raced out to an 8-0 lead after six minutes on the back of three early penalties. Johnson’s penalty was followed quickly by a memorable try to Agnatius Paasi, the burly prop selling a huge dummy from acting half to plunge over beside the posts.

After repelling several Panthers attacking sets on their own line, the Warriors earned another chance and took it through beautiful quick hands down the right-hand side.

Mannering, Johnson and Hiku created more than enough space for Fusitu’a to zip over in the corner.

The hosts put the hammer down and Fusitu’a made a long break in the ensuing set on the back of slick work from Harris and Johnson.

From a resultant penalty, Mason Lino burrowed over from a Mannering offload to rack up an 18-0 lead after 29 minutes.

The Panthers got on the board four minutes out from the break with the jammiest try of all time, a kick deflecting off Peta Hiku’s legs into the path of Josh Mansour for a simple four-pointer.

The wilting Warriors survived a scare right before the hooter and Stephen Kearney would no doubt have been relieved to get his gassed troops back in to the sheds without incurring any further scoreboard damage.

But their second-half start could hardly have been any sweeter. Big Billy Kikau coughed up a bomb at the end of the Warriors’ first set and rapid-fire passing saw Fusitu’a dot down for his second and regain the lead in the NRL’s tryscoring race with 20.

Penrith had its chances in the ensuing period but the Warriors managed to scramble sufficiently to maintain their 20-point lead.

The Warriors all but sealed the win and their passage to the finals in the 57th minute after a slice of magic from Johnson, who cut through the defensive line on halfway and flung a speculator back in-field for Fusitu’a’s hat-trick.

Johnson took a gift two points just after the hour-mark to stretch the lead to beyond four converted tries.

For a team with a history of torturous false dawns and harrowing collapses, it seemed almost incongruous that the Warriors would confirm the end their seven-year finals absence (a) with a week to go and (b) so far out from fulltime.

But the deal was well and truly sealed with 13 minutes as Solomone Kata powered over out wide and Johnson nailed the sideline conversion for 36-4.

The Warriors’ defence finally buckled with Waqa Blake steamrolling Tuivasa-Sheck and slamming the ball down. Trent Merrin smashed his way over soon after as an anti-climactic finish began to unfold for the Mount Smart faithful.

The latter stages petered out but that did little to dampen the celebrations in the stands.

Though the bounce of the ball unquestionably went the Warriors’ way, the result was a very handy confidence boost with a week one finals rematch in Auckland with the Panthers – who square off against Melbourne in Round 25 – looming as a strong likelihood.

Warriors 36 (David Fusitu’a 3, Agnatius Paasi, Mason Lino, Solomone Kata tries; Shaun Johnson 6 goals) d Penrith Panthers 16 (Josh Mansour, Waqa Blake, Trent Merrin tries; Nathan Cleary 2 goals) at Mount Smart Stadium.




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