The Vodafone Junior Warriors' hopes of a third NYC premiership in four years foundered on injury setbacks and critically contentious calls as they lost 30-42 to Penrith in tonight's grand final at ANZ Stadium.
Yet even against odds stacked against them they defied football logic by recovering from 6-34 down after 47 minutes to trail just 30-34 with 11 minutes to go.
Given the flow of events earlier on it seemed scarcely believable that they were in the contest at all let alone in a position to win it.
They were 6-22 behind at halftime and the tone of the contest showed no signs of improvement as Penrith scored twice in the first seven minutes if the second spell to lead by 28 points.
As anyone who follows this side knows - or should know by now - the Vodafone Junior Warriors do have a comeback in them. They might even be the best in the business at it.
In all honesty a 6-34 deficit must have seemed daunting even to them but, in their favour, there was plenty of time. And back they came.
First prop Albert Vete barged over after good lead-up work, hooker Eko Malu followed from dummy half, right wing Metia Lisati did superbly well to drive through a wall of bodies to get the ball down and left winger Viliami Lolohea did even better squeezing in with a centimetre or two to spare. With some brilliant goal kicking from Mason Lino, the Vodafone Junior Warriors had nailed 24 points in 19 minutes.
With 11 minutes left, the wind was in the Vodafone Junior Warriors sails. Theyd come back from 16-34 down to beat Canterbury-Bankstown 54-38 a week earlier and there was no reason to believe they wouldnt do it again.
But just when the chance was on to press for the lead they slipped up. An error handed possession to Penrith on halfway and in the 75th minute Waqa Blake scored to effectively take the game out of reach.
It was truly remarkable that the Vodafone Junior Warriors were in contention at all.
In the opening stanza they had conceded an early try and then been forced to defend set after set on the back of penalties before retorting with a well taken Raymond Faitala-Mariner try.
The defining moments of the match were to follow soon after when twice in the space of three minutes an extremely liberal interpretation of what constitutes a legal pass cost the Vodafone Junior Warriors in the biggest way imaginable. For some reason neither the referees nor the touch judges found anything untoward in what were palpably forward passes in the lead-up to tries to James Roberts and Kieren Moss. There would be other moments missed or contentiously ruled on. The upshot was the Vodafone Junior Warriors were knocked right out of their rhythm as the Panthers went out to an 18-6 lead and then 22-6 at halftime.
There were other setbacks, too, most significantly the loss of influential hooker Siliva Havili with a leg injury. Impressive fullback David Fusitua was also off the field with injury for a time before returning while Vete battled manfully despite a knee problem.
By halftime the Vodafone Junior Warriors had already used six of their interchanges placing them at a distinct disadvantage (it should be said Penrith has also lost halfback Daniel Foster).
For all that and calls going against them including what should have been a penalty try when Lino was meddled with in the act of trying to score the Vodafone Junior Warriors made a massive impact on the game after the horror start.
The Panthers were celebrating like theyd won the grand final when they went 34-6 ahead early in the second half. A Vodafone Junior Warriors victory after such demonstrations would have been so sweet.
It wasnt to be and so John Acklands bid to coach the club to a third premiership before departing failed. Not without an awful lot to admire in defeat, though.
Prop James Taylor was again exceptional with close to 200 metres from 20 runs while Faitala-Mariner, Vete and captain David Bhana were also outstanding.
Penrith had never won an NYC finals match before this season but has gone on to claim its maiden premiership this time.
The Vodafone Junior Warriors now have an 11-5 win-loss record in 16 finals matches.
At ANZ Stadium, Homebush
Penrith Panthers 42 (James Roberts 2, Kieren Moss, George Jennings, Brendan Attwood, Mitchell Clark, Waqa Blake tries; Bryce Cartwright 6 conversions, penalty).
Vodafone Junior Warriors 30 (Raymond Faitala-Mariner, Albert Vete, Eko Malu, Metia Lisati, Viliami Lolohea tries; Mason :Lino 5 conversions).
Halftime; 22-6 Panthers.
Referees: Chris Butler and Dave Munro.
Vodafone Junior Warriors: David Fusitua; Metia Lisati, Ngataua Hukatai, Adam Tuimavave-Gerrard, Viliami Lolohea; Tuimoala Lolohea, Mason Lino; Albert Vete, Siliva Havili, James Taylor; Raymond Faitala-Mariner, Michael Sio; David Bhana (c). Interchange: Eko Malu, Sam Lisone, Kouma Samson, Solomone Kata.