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The Storylines: It’s taken 2,533 days, but the New Zealand Warriors are back in the NRL finals.

But the club’s first post-season match-up is probably the one fans were least hoping for after results went against them in Round 25 – a Sydney trip to take on the ever-dangerous Penrith Panthers.

After a run of poor form – which including a 20-point hiding at the hands of the Warriors in Round 24 – the Panthers rocketed back to form, and into a home final, with an upset of the (admittedly under-strength) Melbourne Storm. James Maloney’s return from injury made all the difference, and after the job the pivot did in his maiden finals campaigns with the Roosters and Sharks (as well his heroics in Warriors colours in 2010-11), he is the Panther the Warriors fear most.

There’s plenty of reasons to be confident, however.

The Warriors may have finished eighth, but their 15-9 record was the best ever by an eight-placed team, would have been enough to see them finish between third and sixth in each of the past 18 seasons, and was just one win shy of the minor premiers.

They put six straight late-season fadeouts behind them to win four of their last five, including quality wins over the Panthers and in-form Canberra Raiders in the past fortnight.

Tohu Harris’ comeback has made a monumental difference on both sides of the ball, Blake Green returns from a two-week layoff and James Gavet is back after one game on the sidelines, and heart-and-soul duo Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Simon Mannering have been declared fit. Stephen Kearney has stuck solid with turnstile-like attacking threat Peta Hiku in the centres ahead of the steady Gerard Beale, who at this stage will come off the bench.

The match being staged at ANZ Stadium, where both sides have ordinary records, is a bonus for the Warriors. A trip to Panthers Stadium would have been far more daunting.

The finals experience factor paints an interesting picture. Following the Panthers’ week two appearances in 2016-17, Christian Crichton and Bill Kikau are their only finals debutants this weekend. There’s three survivors from the club’s 2014 preliminary final showing, while Maloney, Trent Merrin and James Tamou have won grand finals with other clubs.

The Warriors will field a whopping seven players on finals debut. But Simon Mannering and Shaun Johnson are survivors of their 2011 grand final run, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Adam Blair, Blake Green, Harris and Beale have played in deciders with rival clubs, and Hiku and Issac Luke have impressive finals résumés.

The best of the 2018 Warriors would likely be far too good for Penrith, but the Warriors can’t be relied on to produce their optimum performance on any given day and – as they showed in a 36-4 loss to a Panthers side laced with second-stringers in Round 17 – the gap between their best and worst is cavernous.

The Panthers are even more inconsistent, often within the same 80 minutes. But that also means they are streaky, capable of piling on several tries in a flash courtesy of their bevy of game-breakers. The Warriors’ defence can’t afford any flat periods and they must take early control of the ruck and the middle third.

The scene is set for a post-season classic. It’s up to the Warriors big guns to lift them to week two.

The History: Played 41 – Penrith won 23, Warriors won 17, draws 1.


The Stats

-The Warriors are 8-4 on the road this season; Penrith is 2-3 at Sydney venues not including Panthers Stadium.
-Both sides have won just three of their last 11 at ANZ Stadium.
-The Panthers have won nine of their last 12 against the Warriors – including six straight away from Auckland.
-The clubs’ last four encounters have produced 40-plus points.
-Josh Mansour has scored seven tries in 10 games against the Warriors; David Fusitu’a boasts six tries in seven appearances against Penrith.

3 Key Match-ups 

Shaun Johnson v Nathan Cleary: SJ produced his most dominant performance of 2018 against the Panthers two weeks ago, despite the absence of Blake Green. But Cleary was the Panthers’ best in poor team effort, and James Maloney’s return helps his game significantly. There’s arguably more pressure on Johnson, the Warriors’ magic man, to step up and produce the big play. If he goes into his shell, the Warriors are cactus. Cleary can share the game-breaking load with Maloney. What a No.7 battle it promises to be.

Peta Hiku v Waqa Blake: Hiku took full advantage of Gerard Beale’s one-week layoff to reclaim the right centre berth, immediately adding an extra bit of zip and polish to the Warriors’ defence. But it’s his questionable defence – which was given a strenuous work-out by Bill Kikau and Blake a fortnight ago – that will be the crucial factor on Saturday. The same pair terrorised him back in Round 17. The long-striding Blake has menaced the Warriors in recent times – scoring a try in each of his last four games against the club – and can make something out of nothing. Hiku has to shut him down.

Adam Blair v Isaah Yeo: In a team of explosive game-breakers, Yeo is the Panthers’ Mr. Reliable – a Mannering-like figure for the side and an underrated attacking threat. His edge match-up with Blair is crucial. Blair’s late-season form has been superb, though the Warriors need him to be far more active with the ball in hand than he was against the Raiders, as well as bringing his customary mongrel to the pack.

Last Time They Met: The Warriors ended a lean run against the Panthers with a 36-16 thrashing at Mount Smart Stadium two weeks ago, confirming the end of the club’s seven-year finals exile.

The Punt: NZ TAB Odds – Head to Head: Panthers $1.70, Warriors $2.05 (Line: Warriors +2.5)


TWL’s Tips – Warriors 12 & Under @ $3.30
-Under 39.5 Points @ $1.87
-Shaun Johnson To Score a Try and Warriors Win @ $5.00
-Warriors/Warriors @ $2.75



The Verdict: Of the four week one match-ups, this is the most difficult to predict. Both sides are capable of blowing the other off the park with their attacking might. If it develops into a tight, grinding affair, that has to favour the Warriors – particularly if they can get an early lead. The nagging thought in the back of fans’ minds is the blowout losses the Warriors have suffered in 2018; as bad as the Panthers have been at times, they’re rarely dead and buried. But the Warriors have generally delivered on the big occasions this year, and after a solid last month or so we can only have faith that they will come up with something resembling their formidable best on a watershed day for the club. Warriors by 8


Around the grounds


Melbourne Storm v South Sydney Rabbitohs: Neither side has set the world on fire leading into the playoffs, though Souths rocketed back to form with a thrashing of the Tigers last week and most are tipping them to grab the first preliminary final berth. But Melbourne welcome back Slater, Munster and Vunivalu, and they’re our tip at AAMI Park. Tip: Storm 12 & Under @ $2.80


Sydney Roosters v Cronulla Sharks: Another mouth-watering top-four showdown where the lower-ranked team is finding a fair bit of favour with the pundits, despite heading in as underdogs. The Sharks are in ominous touch, but there’s big scope for improvement from the minor premier Roosters. We’re going against the grain again to back the Chooks in this slug-fest. Tip: Roosters 12 & Under @ $2.60


Brisbane Broncos v St George Illawarra Dragons: The Dragons have been awful for several weeks and it’s hard seeing them turning it around enough to trouble a red-hot Broncos side at Suncorp Stadium on a Sunday afternoon. The Saints could be in for a bit of a pasting here. Tip: Broncos 11-20 @ $3.50

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