The Warriors’ seesawing rivalry with the Penrith Panthers includes two shared coaches (three if you count a Panthers assistant who returned to take the head coach reins at the Warriors), several stars who have turned out for both clubs, two finals matches and a truckload of points. But after 28 seasons, it’s the Panthers who hold the advantage after getting the better of the Warriors in recent years.
Overall record: Played 49 – Penrith won 30, Warriors won 18, draws 1; Penrith scored 1,287 points, Warriors scored 1,053 points.
Biggest wins: Penrith – 62-6 at Centrebet Stadium, 2013; Warriors – 52-8 at Mt Smart Stadium, 2001.
Longest winning streaks: Penrith – 6 matches (twice – 2003-05 and 2019-22); Warriors – 4 matches (2010-12).
Finals: Played 2 – Penrith won 2.
Most appearances: Simon Mannering (Warriors) – 21; Craig Gower (Penrith) – 17; Shaun Johnson (Warriors) – 17; Stacey Jones (Warriors) – 17; Manu Vatuvei (Warriors) – 16; Isaah Yeo (Penrith) – 16; James Fisher-Harris (Penrith) – 15; Jacob Lillyman (Warriors) – 15; Tony Puleuta (Penrith) – 15; Sam Rapira (Warriors) – 15;Luke Lewis (Penrith) – 14; Josh Mansour (Penrith) – 14; Ben Matulino (Warriors) – 14; Trent Waterhouse (Penrith) – 14.
Most tries: Manu Vatuvei (Warriors) – 12; Luke Rooney (Penrith) – 10; Rhys Wesser (Penrith) – 10; Ryan Girdler (Penrith) – 9; David Fusitu’a (Warriors) – 8; Tyrone Peachey (Penrith) – 8; Josh Mansour (Penrith) – 8; Logan Swann (Warriors) – 7.
Most points: Ryan Girdler (Penrith) – 113; Preston Campbell (Penrith) – 80; Michael Gordon (Penrith) – 76; Nathan Cleary (Penrith) – 70; Shaun Johnson (Warriors) – 70; James Maloney (Warriors and Penrith) – 62; Manu Vatuvei (Warriors) – 48; Luke Walsh (Penrith) – 48.
1995-2002 – Warriors and Panthers jockey for position
The Auckland Warriors had an instant connection with Penrith after signing the Panthers’ greatest-ever player, 1991 grand final-winning skipper Greg Alexander, for their debut campaign. The two-time Kangaroo tourist’s acquisition was a huge coup for the Warriors, and he provided excellent leadership at the club in their first two seasons.
But ‘Brandy’ was sidelined when the Warriors faced his former club for the first time, which saw Ryan Girdler score 18 points and legendary Kiwis halfback Gary Freeman cross for two tries in Penrith’s 34-16 win in Auckland. Alexander was on deck for a homecoming to the foot of the Blue Mountains in 1996, however, featuring in a 26-16 Warriors win that included a Marc Ellis double.
Alexander returned to the Panthers for the 1997 Super League season, with both sides notching a home win that year. Gene Ngamu’s field goal proved the difference in their sole 1998 encounter, won 15-14 by the Warriors at Mt Smart.
Both clubs then notched three-match winning streaks (Penrith from 1999-2000, Warriors from 2001-02) in a remarkable streak of high-scoring clashes, with the six encounters averaging points aggregates of almost 60 points a game.
The Warriors asserted their status as a rising force in 2001 with a 52-8 drubbing of the Panthers at Mt Smart, with Justin Murphy, Clinton Toopi, Francis Meli and Logan Swann all bagging two tries. Later that year at Penrith, Meli and Stacey Jones scored doubles while Ivan Cleary kicked eight-from-eight in a 48-32 win for the Warriors – just the seventh match in premiership history to produce 80 points at the time.
2003-05 – Premiership winners are grinners
Penrith marked its remarkable surge from also-ran to NRL champion with three victories over the Warriors in 2003. Rhys Wesser blazed over for a hat-trick in a 28-14 win in Round 7, while Preston Campbell repeated the feat – and added five goals for a 22-point haul – five weeks later in a 34-12 hammering.
But the Warriors rallied late in the season to join the Panthers in the finals, where they squared off for a berth in the big one.
Preliminary Final, 2003 – Panthers outlast Warriors to grab grand final spot
The Warriors’ memorable charge through the 2003 playoffs – including brilliant wins over the Bulldogs and Canberra after finishing sixth – came to an end courtesy of minor premiers Penrith in an absorbing prelim. Tries to Panthers backline guns Rhys Wesser and Luke Lewis were cancelled out by four-pointers to Warriors forwards Logan Swann and Richard Villasanti as the teams headed to the sheds locked at 10-all, but Luke Priddis and Ryan Girdler both crossed to give the favourites a crucial 12-point break in the second half. Clinton Toopi pegged one back, but it was former Warriors powerhouse Joe Galuvao that powered over for decisive try for the Panthers with 18 minutes left. Brent Webb’s 67th-minute try gave the Warriors a glimmer of hope but the Panthers managed to stave off the rally with a superb late defensive effort.
The Panthers parlayed that dominance in ’03 into three more wins over the Warriors. Amos Roberts – playing just his second game for the Panthers after moving from St George Illawarra – scored four tries in a 42-22 win early in 2004, while in 2005 the Warriors became just the 12th team ever to score 34 points or more and lose as the Panthers prevailed 42-34.
2006-12 – Warriors declaw Panthers
The Warriors redressed the balanced in the ensuing seven seasons, losing just three of 12 games against Penrith. The clubs’ clashes remained high-scoring, however, with four of the five encounters from 2007-09 producing 62-plus points.
Michael Witt scored 20 points in the Warriors’ 54-14 win midway through 2007 – a game best remembered for Wade McKinnon’s all-time great solo try – while Penrith winger Michael Gordon tallied 22 points in a 46-22 success the following season. The rivals created more history in late-2009.
Round 21, 2009 – Panthers and Warriors produce extraordinary draw
Penrith and the Warriors played out the equal fourth-highest scoring draw in the history of the code, unable to be separated at 32-all. But that only told part of the story of an extraordinary match at the foot of the mountains. Despite languishing out of finals contention, the Warriors powered to a 32-6 lead over the fifth-placed Panthers, with centre Joel Moon scoring four tries. The hosts looked dead and buried up against a 26-point deficit with 27 minutes left, but they managed to find their way over the try-line four times before Michael Gordon slotted a 77th-minute penalty to send the match into extra-time. Incredibly – after the sides piled on 64 points in regulation time – the additional 10 minutes failed to produce a winning score, and the spoils were shared. If the Panthers had won, it would have equalled the biggest comeback victory of all time.
After suffering a 40-12 loss at home early in 2010, the Warriors chalked up four straight victories over the Panthers for the first time, starting with a gutsy 12-6 away win later that year. In Round 14 of 2012, former Warriors coach Ivan Cleary returned to Mt Smart for the first time as coach of the Panthers and endured a 30-16 defeat.
2012-18 – Mountain men climb back
Former Panthers mentor Matt Elliott’s first visit back to Penrith as the Warriors’ coach was an experience he’d probably prefer to forget, with the visitors suffering a demoralising 62-6 loss. Ex- Warriors Isaac John (three tries) and Lewis Brown (two tries) starred in the Panthers’ rampage, while Luke Walsh kicked 11-from-11.
Remarkably, the Warriors went on to win their next five games that season, but an 28-24 upset loss to the Panthers in Auckland in Round 23 – with wingers David Simmons and Josh Mansour both scoring doubles for the visitors – proved a critical blow to their finals hopes.
Penrith won six of seven games against the Warriors from 2012-16, culminating in an emphatic 30-16 victory at Christchurch’s AMI Stadium that featured a Tyrone Peachey hat-trick. It was the first NRL match in the city for six years, but the Panthers reneged on their deal to take subsequent games to the South Island centre.
The Warriors struck back with a heart-stopping win over the finals-bound Panthers later in the year.
Round 21, 2016 – Magic Johnson secures golden point win
Young Warriors three-quarters David Fusitu’a and Ken Maumalo scored tries to put the home side up 10-2 over Penrith at halftime in a crucial battle between the finals hopefuls. Fusitu’a’s second edged the Warriors ahead 16-8, but Panthers winger Josh Mansour crossed in the 64th and 73rd minutes to send the match into extra-time. It was the Warriors’ fourth trip to golden point in five weeks, and they finally won one when Shaun Johnson weaved through the Panthers’ defence to score a brilliant solo try with only a minute of the added period remaining.
But the Panthers proved a painful opponent for the Warriors home and away in 2017. The Warriors stormed to a 28-6 halftime lead at Pepper Stadium in Round 10 but the Panthers were unstoppable after the break, scoring 30 unanswered points to consign the Warriors to their biggest-ever collapse.
Two months later, the Warriors led the visiting Panthers 22-18 when Shaun Johnson limped off with a serious injury midway through the second half. The Panthers surged late to win 34-22 and move ahead of the Warriors on the premiership table. Nathan Cleary, a former Warriors ball-boy during father Ivan’s tenure as coach, starred with three tries and 22 points.
Johnson played just one more game in 2017 and the club lost its remaining seven games, while the Panthers charged into the playoffs.
The reborn Warriors went into their Panthers Stadium assignment in 2018 as warm favourites with Penrith missing its Origin stars, but halfback Jarome Luai – making his initial NRL start – tore the visitors apart in an embarrassing 36-4 loss.
The Warriors earned some retribution in late-2018, however, sealing their first finals berth in seven years with a 36-16 pummelling of the Panthers. David Fusitu’a scored a hat-trick that ultimately helped him finish as the NRL regular season’s top try-scorer, while Shaun Johnson produced an absolute masterclass as the Warriors powered to a 32-point lead with less than 15 minutes remaining.
Final-round results conspired to pitch the rivals into a week one sudden-death finals showdown at ANZ Stadium.
Elimination Final, 2016 – Panthers pounce as Warriors wilt in finals return
After racing to a 12-2 lead with tries to Issac Luke and David Fusitu’a, the Warriors’ first finals match in seven years descended into a nightmare at the hands of the Penrith Panthers. The Warriors lost inspirational captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and conceded three tries before halftime, with Solomone Kata totally unravelling on attack and defence and opposing centre Tyrone Peachey bagging a double. The Warriors defended bravely in the second half – only conceding one further try – but barely fired a shot with the ball as they went down 27-12 in retiring legend Simon Mannering’s last game. Former Warriors linchpin James Maloney was outstanding for the Panthers, while Shaun Johnson was pilloried for his anonymous second-half performance in what would ultimately be his final appearance for the club.
The Warriors compounded the Panthers’ woeful start to 2019 with a 30-10 blowout at Penrith.
The four-tries-to-one victory – in which rookie centre Patrick Herbert racked up 18 points and Kodi Nikorima scored a sizzling solo try in his second game for the club – was the Warriors’ biggest ever on the road against the Panthers.
But the Panthers atoned at Mt Smart just five weeks later as Maloney found one last dagger for his former club.
In a wildly see-sawing clash in which they were dudded by several shocking referee calls, the visitors hit the lead in the dying minutes as rookie centre Brent Naden scored a long-range try – his second four-pointer of the match.
Warriors counterpart Patrick Herbert nailed a clutch penalty goal on fulltime to send the match in golden point, but Maloney proved the match-winner yet again with the decisive field goal.
The Panthers thumped the Warriors 26-0 at Campbelltown Stadium in the second round after the 2020 NRL season’s post-COVID resumption.
But putting their new-found resolve under caretaker coach Todd Payten on display in Round 14, the Warriors were gallant in an 18-12 loss in Gosford – after trailing 16-0 – to the competition leaders and eventual Grand Finalists. It was the Panthers’ 13th win from their last 17 games against the Warriors.
That sort of resilience under adversity was absent against the eventual premiers of the following two seasons, however.
The Panthers cruised to a 30-16 win at Suncorp Stadium during the NRL’s Queensland relocation of late-2021, while Brian To’o picked up doubles in both of the defending champs’ 2022 thrashings of the Warriors: 40-6 at Redcliffe and 46-12 at Penrith.
Andrew Webster, a former Warriors assistant coach who later followed Ivan Cleary from Wests Tigers to Penrith and was a key member of the staff as the club reached three straight grand finals, took on the Warriors head coach role for 2023 to set up an intriguing subplot ahead of their 2023 Magic Round showdown.
THEY PLAYED FOR BOTH CLUBS
Greg Alexander: Penrith’s ultra-gifted, long-serving linchpin made the 1986 and ’90 Kangaroo Tour squads, before captaining the club to its maiden premiership in 1991. He was a prized signing for the Auckland Warriors’ 1995 debut and captained the fledgling outfit in ’96. After playing 37 games for the Warriors, the half/fullback returned to the Panthers before retiring in 1999 with 228 games at his junior club to his name.
Scott Pethybridge: The blonde-haired flyer played 34 games for the Panthers from 1994-96, before spending three seasons with North Sydney. Following the Bears’ demise, Pethybridge joined the Warriors for the 2000 – managing 14 appearances but failing to score a try – and finished his NRL career at the Northern Eagles.
Joe Galuvao: Manurewa junior Galuvao began his career with the Warriors as a utility-back, playing 27 games from 1998-2000. But his big break came after joining the Panthers in 2002, starring in the club’s ’03 premiership triumph. Galuvao played four Tests for the Kiwis while at Penrith and made 78 NRL appearances, before stints with Souths, Parramatta and Manly, playing in grand finals with the latter two – including a win over the Warriors in the 2011 decider.
Paul Whatuira: Another 2003 grand final winner who got their start with the Warriors – playing five games for the club in 2000 – Wainuiomata product Whatuira arrived at Penrith in ’02 after a season at Melbourne. The wiry centre played 62 games for the Panthers and made his Test debut for New Zealand in 2004, before joining Wests Tigers and winning another premiership. The 16-Test Kiwi’s career wound down with stints at Huddersfield and Parramatta.
Peter Lewis: New Zealand Maori and Cook Islands rep Lewis played 11 games for the Auckland Warriors in 1999, before resurfacing in the NRL with brief first-grade stints at Penrith (two games in 2003) and Parramatta (two games in 2006).
Lewis Brown: Riccarton Knights (Christchurch) junior Brown was picked up by the Warriors after lower-grade stints in Sydney, making his NRL debut aged 22 in 2009. He played his first Test for the Kiwis in 2011 and scored a now-iconic try in the preliminary final that year against Melbourne that propelled the Warriors into the decider. After 84 games in Auckland, Brown joined former Warriors coach Ivan Cleary at Penrith in 2013 and made 66 first grade appearances across three seasons. The New Zealand Test regular linked with Manly in 2016 and retired at the end of 2018 two games short of his 200-game milestone.
Isaac John: Clever half John played nine NRL games for the Warriors from 2009-11. Unable to see a way past Shaun Johnson and James Maloney, the Turangawaewae junior spent a year with Wakefield Trinity before returning to the NRL with Penrith in 2013. His three seasons at the foot of the mountains garnered 26 first grade games and a shock Kiwis call-up for the 2014 Anzac Test.
Elijah Taylor: Versatile Otahuhu Leopards product Taylor captained the Warriors to their maiden NYC premiership success in 2010, before enjoying an outstanding rookie year the following season that included a try in the club’s grand final loss to Manly and a New Zealand Test debut. After 67 first grade games for the Warriors, Taylor linked with Ivan Cleary at Penrith in 2014 and played 39 games before a mid-season shift to Wests Tigers in 2016.
Jeremy Latimore: Journeyman forward Latimore started his career at Parramatta in 2009 before playing 24 games in two seasons with the Warriors. He spent the bridging 2012 season at St George Illawarra ahead of a move to Penrith, where he played 75 games in four years. Latimore joined Cronulla in 2017 before again linking with the Dragons in 2018.
Suaia Matagi: Hard-running cult hero prop Matagi debuted for the Warriors as a 25-year-old in 2013 after overcoming a troubled background, playing 36 games for the club before making the mid-season jump to the Roosters in 2015. Matagi was snapped up by the Panthers for 2016 – playing a career-high 23 games – before moving again to the Eels. The front-row powerhouse has represented Samoa and New Zealand at Test level.
Peta Hiku: An NYC star for the Warriors, Gisborne-born Hiku was snapped up by Manly and scored 28 tries in 61 games for the club from 2013-15, as well as making his Test debut for New Zealand in 2014. He moved to Penrith for an injury-riddled 18-month stint that garnered just 20 NRL appearances but the versatile back returned to the Warriors in 2018 after a short stay with Warrington. The 11-Test Kiwi played 67 games for the Warriors but he suffered a season-ending injury early in 2021 before signing a deal to join the Cowboys at the end of the year.
James Maloney: Dynamic half Maloney debuted for Melbourne but was a virtual unknown when he joined the Warriors in 2010. He made a monumental impact as an ultra-competitive playmaker and clutch goalkicker, helping spearhead the club’s drive to the 2011 grand final. He moved to Bondi Junction in 2013 was outstanding in the Roosters’ premiership triumph, scoring 252 points and starring in that year’s grand final victory. Maloney repeated the dose after joining Cronulla in 2016, steering the club to its first title, and proved highly valuable in two seasons at Penrith before heading to Super League at the end of 2019. A veteran of 14 Origins for NSW and three Tests for Australia, Maloney scored 1,825 points from 247 first-grade games – including 162 points in 44 games for the Panthers.
Wayde Egan: After 29 games for the Panthers in 2018-19, local junior Egan signed with the Warriors and took possession of the club’s No.9 jumper. He has featured in 64 games for the Warriors and developed into one of the club’s most important players, as well as being an occasional captain.
Jack Hetherington: The son of former Canberra premiership winner Brett Hetherington, the firebrand forward has played 16 games for Penrith since his 2018 debut. But he became an instant Warriors cult hero after joining the marooned club on a loan deal, starring in each of his six appearances before a high-tackle suspension brought a premature end to his memorable stint.
Dallin Watene-Zelezniak: A star for Penrith’s NYC team, Sydney-born Kiwi Watene-Zelezniak was an 18-year-old first-grade debutant in 2014 in a team that reached the preliminary final. Winger/fullback DWZ debuted for New Zealand in 2016 and was a shock captaincy choice for the Kiwis in 2018 – leading them to their only win over Austraila since 2015 – but was shipped off to Canterbury midway through 2019 after 106 games and 41 tries for the Panthers. After a patchy stint at the Bulldogs, the high-velocity outside back joined the Warriors midway through 2021, scoring 15 tries in 30 appearances to date.
Sean O’Sullivan: Former Roosters and Broncos half O’Sullivan joined the Warriors – where his father, Peter, was the recruitment manager – in 2021. He made 12 NRL starts in Nathan Brown’s side, his most so far for any of the five clubs he has turned out for, before playing a valuable back-up role in 11 games at the heavyweight Panthers in 2022 with Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai frequently injured and/or suspended (though he did not feature during their finals surge to a second straight title). O’Sullivan starred in the Dolphins’ stunning start to their debut season before suffering a long-term pec injury.
Te Maire Martin: Waikato product Martin was an NYC gun for Wests Tigers but made his NRL debut at Penrith – breaking through for a Kiwis debut after just six first-grade games in 2016 – before switching to North Queensland midway through 2017 as an injury replacement for Johnathan Thurston. The five-eighth played a key role in the Cowboys’ remarkable run from eighth spot to that year’s grand final. A brain bleed discovered in 2019 saw Martin retire at just 23, but he eventually returned to the field in the relatively anonymity of the Waikato club competition and eventually to the NRL with Brisbane in 2022. He was a prized signing for the Warriors for 2023 and immediately became an integral part of their line-up, but a fractured leg suffered in Round 6 put him on the sidelines for two months.
THEY COACHED BOTH CLUBS
Ivan Cleary: Former Manly, Norths and Sydney City fullback/centre and pointscoring machine Cleary finished his playing career with a superb three-season stint at the Warriors, retiring after the club’s 2002 grand final to the Roosters. Cleary cut his teeth in coach in the Roosters’ lower grades before returning to Auckland, initially as an assistant to Tony Kemp before taking over as head coach in 2006. He became the engimatic Warriors’ most successful and longest-serving coach in their history over six seasons, garnering four finals appearances and a grand final in 2011. But the club’s infamous refusal to agree to an extra year on a contract extension saw Cleary snapped up as Penrith’s new NRL coach for 2012. Despite a sharp rise in 2014, the Panthers dumped Cleary at the end of a disappointing 2015 campaign and he eventually resurfaced as Wests Tigers’ coach. He was controversially brought back to the Panthers in 2019 and led the club to three straight grand finals (2020-22), two minor premierships (2020, 2022) and back-to-back premiership triumphs (2021-22) to cement his status as a giant among modern rugby league coaches.
Matthew Elliott:Former St George forward and successful Bradford coach Elliott succeeded Mal Meninga at the helm of the Raiders in 2002 and steered the club to four finals series in five years, although he did not win a post-season match. A largely disappointing five-season stint at Penrith – which garnered only one finals appearance, in 2010 – ended prematurely in 2011, but he was the surprise choice as the Warriors’ new mentor in 2013. A unique and likable character, Elliott’s charges finished 11th in his first season in Auckland but he stepped down before he was pushed five rounds into 2014 following a rocky start to the year.