TWL RD 14: ALL GUTS BUT NO GLORY FOR WARRIORS AS PANTHERS HANG ON

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The Warriors’ bid for a third straight win for the first time since 2018 came up just short, but the NRL’s most inspirational team’s month-long streak of putting up valiant, never-say-die performances remained intact in an 18-12 loss to competition leaders Penrith in Gosford.

The Panthers created a new club record with their ninth consecutive win – but rarely have they been tested like they were by the side installed as 17.5-point underdogs by the bookies.

After falling behind 16-0 under a mountain of Panthers possession, the Warriors staged a fairytale comeback built on guts and belief that fell just short. They scored the only tries of the last 45 minutes and kept the game alive until the final siren – despite finishing with a paltry 41 percent of the ball.

In conditions identical to last week’s slippery affair at Brookvale, there were few of the genuinely brilliant individual performances across 80 minutes that marked the win over Manly. But the extraordinary ability of the Warriors to stick with the ruthless, clinical Panthers – who forced an astonishing 10 line dropouts – was as much a glowing endorsement of the qualities Todd Payten have instilled in this squad as anything in their upsets of the Tigers and Sea Eagles in the previous fortnight.

Again it was tough to go past the Tohu Harris as the Warriors’ best as the indefatigable back-rower led his side in running metres (142) and tackles (58!). But Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Patrick Herbert, Peta Hiku, Kodi Nikorima and the courageous Chanel Harris-Tavita all had their moments, while the thirst for work from Jamayne Taunoa-Brown and Jazz Tevaga, among others, was outstanding.

In a sour footnote, a group of Warriors fans were ejected from Central Coast Stadium for alleged racial abuse of Penrith’s Indigenous winger Brent Naden.

Penrith poured on the pressure from the outset. The Warriors stoutly defended five straight sets, but finally cracked during the sixth as Nathan Cleary’s rainbow pass caught George Jennings miles out of position and allowed winger Brent Naden to stroll over.

The Warriors had to wait until the 14th minute to touch the ball for the second time. But they regrouped admirably and kept the Panthers on their toes with swarming defence and enterprising play with the ball – particularly from Kodi Nikorima.

An unfortunate intercept pass thrown by Lachlan Burr on a helter-skelter last-tackle play allowed teenage sensation Stephen Crichton to streak downfield, however, and a brilliant snipe from Api Koroisau saw the Panthers hooker slide over for the second try in the 24th minute.

The Warriors were forced to roll up their sleeves again and survived four straight line dropouts. But a terrible error during a rare foray into Penrith’s half by hopefully-soon-to-be-elsewhere Isaiah Papali’i led to another try, this time Josh Mansour finding some space and centring a kick for Dylan Edwards to score.

But the Gosford hosts deservedly received a return on their first-half toil, despite enjoying just 36 percent possession. Chanel Harris-Tavita’s perfectly-placed crossfield chip on the last play before the halftime siren was claimed by Roger Tuivasa-Sheck – an everywhere man throughout the opening 40 at the Warriors end – who crashed over for the Warriors’ opener.

Patrick Herbert’s conversion pegged the scoreboard back to 16-6.

A penalty and a line dropout forced by a Karl Lawton kick gave the Warriors the first scoring chance of the second stanza but a Daniel Alvaro drop let the Panthers off the hook.

It seemed likely – almost acceptable – for the weary Warriors to wilt, particularly after the Panthers forced another couple of line dropouts.

But again they held on, then cashed in at the other end. Peta Hiku’s guile from a scrum win sucked Mansour off his wing and Patrick Herbert zipped in for his fifth try of the season. Herbert sliced the deficit to four points with 22 minutes to go with a booming sideline conversion for good measure.

The Panthers edged back out to 18-12 with a penalty goal at the end of their next possession.

Opportunities to level up were scarce for the Warriors over the last 15 minutes, while the Panthers – who also received the benefit of two successful Captain’s Challenges, the second highly dubious – kept the underdogs in the game by repeatedly refusing to use perfect field goal platforms.

Chanel Harris-Tavita tried to lift the Warriors with a kamikaze hit of rugged Penrith forward Liam Martin that is destined to be an enduring memory of the club’s gallant revival in a unique 2020 campaign.

But with so much petrol used up, the wet conditions making long-range attack ultra-difficult and the Panthers defending well, the Warriors never looked likely to find the try required to send the game into golden point.

The finals may be a pipe dream. But the Warriors – and anyone who has watched their rousing efforts over the past four rounds – will fancy their chances against Canterbury and Newcastle over the next couple of weeks.

Though it’s unlikely, Payten deserves to be considered for Dally M Coach of the Year honours for the turnaround he has led in a team faced with a litany of setbacks, hurdles and heartache. It’s agonising he has opted not to stay and build on it beyond this year.

But at worst, he’s leaving a wonderful foundation for Nathan Brown to walk into in 2021. We can only hope the new coach doesn’t erode it.

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