Penrith dealt a blow to the Vodafone Warriors finals hopes by recovering from a 0-12 deficit to win 28-24 in todays 23rd-round NRL encounter at Mount Smart Stadium.
While the defeat and other outcomes this weekend have resulted in the Vodafone Warriors slipping to 13th on the ladder, they remain just two points out of the top eight.
Not only that, their opponents in the next two rounds Gold Coast and Canberra also losers this weekend lie eighth and ninth respectively on 24 points leaving much hanging on those games.
For all that, todays defeat was a major disappointment.
The Panthers came into the match in poor shape after dropping their previous four matches by big margins. Early on it seemed they were headed for more of the same as the Vodafone Warriors made a roaring start with two tries inside the opening 10 minutes.
The start couldnt have been much better, Thomas Leuluai tracking down a Nathan Friend grubber for the opening try and Elijah Taylor steaming onto a Shaun Johnson short ball for the second. At 12-0 the Vodafone Warriors were in ideal shape coming off two defeats.
Unfortunately, though, the complexion of the contest then turned on what was arguably a game-changing moment, one which not unexpectedly left the home crowd seething.
It came as the Panthers went to their left, former Vodafone Warrior Isaac John throwing what was assuredly a clear forward pass (and emphatically so on television replays). It wasnt called by any of the officials as winger Josh Mansour seized on the opening to surge down the touchline to score wide out.
It undeniably changed the flow of the contest. Rather than a forward pass being called, the Panthers not only stemmed the early bleeding by scoring but they were also able to shift the games momentum.
The net effect of this was palpable. By halftime theyd had 23 sets, the Vodafone Warriors only 14, the penalties favoured them 5-3, the line breaks 4-2 and theyd made 54 fewer tackles.
The benefits of such advantages were transformed into a 16-12 halftime advantage as Penrith created two tries for right winger David Simmons inside the last eight minutes of the half. As is the case so often with wingers these days, Simmons finished his first try quite spectacularly.
The grind went on in the third quarter before the Vodafone Warriors conceded more ground in the 59th minute, this time Mansour with an astonishing finish to take his side out to 22-12.
There was ample time for the Vodafone Warriors to work their way back into a position where they would have a chance of securing victory. They did so immediately and in most emphatic fashion as prop Suaia Matagi stormed across off a Johnson ball, the conversion leaving Penrith just 22-18 ahead with 19 minutes still to play.
There was every reason to believe a comeback win was within reach but just as the Vodafone Warriors were rising to the challenge, the Panthers broke out from their end in a sweeping raid which ended in a Sika Manu try.
It was 28-18 with 12 minutes to play; four minutes later it was 28-24 as Konrad Hurrell thundered across. It was game on again with the Vodafone Warriors coming home fast and shaping like they would steal it but the Panthers held firm over the frantic final few minutes.
There was more than disappointment among the coaching staff and players in the dressing room afterwards. For the third week on end the Vodafone Warriors had been right in the battle but conceded they had once again failed to achieve the standards expected of themselves in the areas of application and intensity.
It was evident in the numbers. The Panthers completed 32 of 41 sets, the Vodafone Warriors 27 from 34; they made 1535 metres to just 1149 by the home side.
On an individual level, the Vodafone Warriors had only three players who made 100 metres plus, Manu Vatuvei with 106 metres from 13 carries, Sam Rapira 113 from 13 and Simon Mannering 104 from 13. Penrith had six 100-metre players.
On defence, Friend led the way with 49 tackles showing just one miss, Mannering made 40 with one miss and Taylor 35 and no misses.
There were undeniably key moments. If the forward pass missed in the first half was critical another defining moment came in the second half when the Vodafone Warriors were coming out of defence, referee Jason Robinson getting in the way of a pass. It resulted in Penrith being awarded a scrum feed on attack as the laws dictate in such circumstances leaving the home crowd incensed.
Another negative was losing seasoned centre Dane Nielsen with an ankle injury after just 12 minutes. He was later cleared of serious injury but his absence was a massive setback.
At Mount Smart Stadium, Auckland
Vodafone Warriors 24 (Thomas Leuluai, Elijah Taylor, Suaia Matagi, Konrad Hurrell tries; Shaun Johnson 4 conversions).
Penrith Panthers 28 (David Simmons 2, Josh Mansour 2, Sika Manu tries; Luke Walsh 4 conversions).
Halftime: 16-12 Panthers.
Referees: Jason Robinson and Chris James.
Vodafone Warriors: Kevin Locke; Ngani Laumape, Konrad Hurrell, Dane Nielsen, Manu Vatuvei; Thomas Leuluai, Shaun Johnson; Sam Rapira, Nathan Friend, Suaia Matagi; Feleti Mateo, Simon Mannering (c); Elijah Taylor. Interchange: Ben Matulino, Ben Matulino, Todd Lowrie, Dominique Peyroux.