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The Warriors’ already tenuous finals hopes are on life support after having their hearts broken by a former friend and a familiar foe.

Penrith playmaker James Maloney, the Auckland club’s linchpin from 2010-12, added to his catalogue of Warriors-killing moments with a golden point field goal, snatching a gutsy 19-18 result at Mt Smart Stadium.

The dramatic circumstances of the loss somewhat masked the Warriors’ glaring deficiencies. The forward pack’s lack of size, mobility and game-breakers, the absence of a genuinely dominant half and the need for a top-quality centre were dragged into the spotlight by a Panthers side with all of the above.

The Panthers had to do it the hard way. They had two players sin-binned, were caned 11-5 in the penalty count and trailed by 10 points early in the second half. But rookie centre Brent Naden came up with two remarkable tries to get the visitors back into the game before Maloney iced the result.

It represents the Warriors’ fifth straight defeat at home and their sixth in eight matches on New Zealand soil in 2018.

Penrith looked dangerous and physically dominant in the opening stages. But the Warriors capitalised on their first penalty in the fifth minute, with Blake Green and Kodi Nikorima providing space for Peta Hiku, who got outside opposing centre Isaah Yeo to score in the corner.

But the Panthers’ engine-room behemoths were causing the Warriors major problems.

Viliame Kikau bumped off Patrick Herbert to make a 50-metre bust. Then after earning three consecutive sets, the visitors grabbed a 6-4 lead in the 18th minute as skipper James Tamou reached out to score off a James Maloney pass – reward for an outstanding start to the game for the towering prop.

The Warriors were struggled to make yardage when not being piggy-backed out of their own end by penalties. The Panthers were having no such issues gaining territory.

Karl Lawton was denied a 26th-minute try, diving over from dummy-half but being ruled to have used Adam Blair as an obstruction.

More penalties – taking the tally to a whopping 7-4 in the Warriors’ favour – allowed Herbert to level up the scoreboard nine minutes out from the break. The Panthers were pinged twice more in short time, exhausting the patience of referee Gerard Sutton who sat rookie lock Liam Martin down for 10 minutes.

The Warriors compounded the sin-binning, posting their second try through a close-range effort from bench powerhouse Bunty Afoa – snapping a 41-game try drought – after deft dummy-half work from Nate Roache.

A 12-6 halftime lead for the Warriors, though the quality of the football in the opening 40 minutes was certainly nothing to get overly excited about.

The Panthers almost produced a freakish try through Brent Naden, but the centre knocked the ball on in-goal after doing all the hard work. The Warriors came close to an equally spectacular effort when Ken Maumalo was put into space by beautiful quick hands from Hiku.

The wing giant kicked in-field for Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, who could not grasp the sharply bouncing ball. But the Panthers were reduced to 11 men thanks to an extremely rough call against Jarome Luai, who was binned for allegedly taking the Warriors skipper out.

Tuivasa-Sheck’s cut-out pass saw David Fusitu’a tiptoe down the sideline and finish magnificently in the corner. The try was just the third of 2019 for last year’s NRL leader – but it ranked alongside his best.

But despite still being one man short, the Panthers struck back when Naden atoned in the 52nd minute.

The rangy rookie outjumped RTS and made an excellent grab to cut the deficit to four points.

The Warriors repelled a couple of subsequent Penrith raids and the desperate rivals settled into a long, tense arm-wrestle.

The Panthers had several shots at the Warriors’ line inside the final 10 minutes, but the hosts’ scrambling was first-rate.

That’s what made it so hard to reconcile Penrith’s go-ahead try. After pinning the Panthers down in their corner, Naden embarrassed Herbert and stepped past Tuivasa-Sheck on a stunning 85-metre run to the try-line.

Herbert coolly took his chance to make up for his defensive meltdown, slotting a tricky penalty goal chance in the last minute after the Panthers gave away an offside penalty from the short kick-off.

The Warriors headed into golden point without a player who had kicked an NRL field goal. But that was only part of their problem.

The Panthers’ superior ability to bend the defensive line back and create second-phase opportunities immediately put them on the front foot in extra-time.

Maloney drilled his second field goal attempt in the 85th minute on the back of an inept Warriors seven-tackle set – including a charged-down Blake Green one-pointer shot – giving the Panthers their fifth straight win and moving them ahead of the Warriors on the ladder.

Sitting four points outside the Top 8 with 10 rounds to go doesn’t suggest a totally irretrievable situation for the Warriors.

But nine of their remaining games are against current Top 8 team, including two games against both Cronulla and Canberra. Just three of those games are at Mt Smart, which is arguably a godsend given their woeful results at their ‘fortress’ in recent months.

The bottom line is the Warriors simply don’t have the size, quality or backbone to challenge the NRL’s best sides regularly.

After the club reportedly dipped out on badly-needed 2020 front-row reinforcement in the shape of Matt Lodge – the latest in a string of rejections from blue-chip forward talent – the Warriors need recruitment guru Peter O’Sullivan to be the busiest man in rugby league in coming months.

Cruelly, luckless utility Nate Roache suffered a suspected ACL tear after making a line-break during the second half, capping a disastrous afternoon at Mt Smart.


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