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Penrith Panthers crushed the Warriors’ dreams of post-season grandeur in a clinical, relentless 27-12 elimination final result at ANZ Stadium.

The Warriors made a blistering start but could not capitalise, disintegrating under the weight of several coach-killing mistakes and dreadful options as their 10-point lead turned into six-point halftime deficit.

But Roger Tuivasa-Sheck’s exit with a knee injury midway through the first half was the single-most decisive factor in the Warriors’ collapse.

The Panthers, who for their part played textbook finals football for the last hour of the match, already had their tails up when the Warriors captain was carried off and never looked back, strangling their opponents into submission in a second half that produced just one try.

Despite conceding a penalty goal at the end of the Panthers’ first possession, the Warriors got off to a dream start.

Issac Luke muscled over from dummy-half to open the scoring after nine minutes. The visitors raced to a 12-2 advantage five minutes later after a dazzling try featuring a string of offloads and slick passes, finished off by David Fusitu’a.

The rangy winger’s dive to the corner saw him equal Francis Meli’s 15-year-old club record for most tries in a season with his 23rd of 2018.

But it rapidly unravelled in a calamitous 15 minutes.

A low-percentage pass when the Warriors were again hot on attack led to a James Maloney 40/20, after which Nathan Cleary’s deft pass put on the Panthers’ opener for Tyrone Peachey.

Dallin Watene-Zelezniak then tore the Warriors up through the middle and sent Maloney away for their second try.

If that wasn’t disastrous enough, inspirational captain and fullback Roger Tuivasa-Sheck was carted off with a knee injury soon afterwards. Errors with the ball and in defence from Solomone Kata in the subsequent sets allow Peachey to dive in for a double.

The shell-shocked Warriors did a good job to stem the tide in the remaining 10 minutes of the first half and regain a bit of momentum of their own – but with RTS gone and an 18-12 scoreline against them, it looked an Everest-like task in the second half.

Bad errors and poor options, though, were cruelling their bid to keep their season alive. It didn’t get a lot better after the break.

Luke attempted to lift the troops with a punishing tackle on Maloney, but the Panthers five-eighth shook off the hit to run the show for the near-perfect Panthers.

The Warriors withstood several sets on their own line  with stand-in fullback Peta Hiku working overtime in the in-goal.

But finally cracked in the 52nd minute as Christian Chrichton finished off an overlap.

Incredibly, that was the only try they conceded in the second 40. Maloney slotted a field goal and Nathan Cleary slotted a third penalty goal to complete the scoring.

The Warriors’ defence was incredibly gutsy – particularly in the face of a clinical and dangerous Panthers side that just did not give up any mistakes and kept their foot on the throat – but their attacking performance was bitterly disappointing.

The Warriors had enough chances to claw back into the game but looked gassed. Johnson offered almost nothing, and most of what his teammates tried to do was half-paced, disjointed, unimaginative and executed poorly.

It was a deflating end to an amazing season. An agonising lost opportunity. A gut-wrenching finish to the great Simon Mannering’s career.

But plenty went against them on the day and they’ll be better for the run in 2019 – the Warriors have certainly set the perfect platform for a premiership tilt in their 25th with their heroics in an unforgettable year.

Penrith Panthers 27 (Tyrone Peachey 2, James Maloney, Christian Crichton tries; Nathan Cleary 5 goals; Maloney field goal) d New Zealand Warriors 12 (Issac Luke, David Fusitu’a tries; Shaun Johnson 2 goals) at ANZ Stadium.

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