NRL | Finals hopes dashed
The Vodafone Warriors' 2014 campaign was brought to an early end following a 6-22 Round 26 loss at the hands of the Panthers at Sportingbet Stadium.
Heading into the encounter the visitors were faced with the equation of either winning to guarantee a finals berth or avoiding a loss of more than three points: their pre-game points differential advantage over the Broncos.
Neither scenario eventuated, though, and the Vodafone Warriors were unable to prevent their season from being cut short.
The loss sees the side slide back into ninth position due to their inferior points difference when matched with Brisbane. The Panthers, on the other hand, catapult the Storm and the Cowboys to go from sixth to fourth and avoid an elimination final as a result.
The Penrith back-line showed their class throughout the contest and were continually spurring their side's attack onwards.
Fullback Matt Moylan was the home side's talisman throughout and was prolific early on, making an incision into the visitors' defence on his own 40 metre line with five minutes gone.
He tore away and passed to stand-off Will Smith, who would have been in the clear but for a desperate Ben Henry tackle five metres from the line.
Hooker James Segeyaro was quick to play the ball at the ensuing ruck and managed to burrow over for the four-pointer. Jamie Soward slotted the extras.
The Panthers padded their lead ten minutes later following a swift play from the scrum. Moylan was once again in the mix, receiving the ball in stride and then swinging the ball wide to winger Dallin Watene-Zelezniak. The Hamilton-born 19 year old was untroubled as he turned the corner and crossed for the try.
Soward was unable to convert from the sideline, though, leaving his club's lead at 10-0.
The score remained that way for the next twenty minutes, with the quality of play being inhibited by the rain that had been falling over Western Sydney all day.
Moylan, true to form all game long, ended the stalemate and put his own name on the scorer's sheet three minutes before the siren.
He collected the ball fifteen metres out and feigned a pass to Josh Mansour before heading north himself, busting the would-be tackles of Hurrell and Tomkins en route to the try line.
Soward converted to give the Panthers a 16-0 lead heading into the tunnel.
Merely three minutes after the restart Manu Vatuvei gave the Vodafone Warriors the shot in the arm they so desperately needed.
The winger turned defence into offence after he collected a waywards Soward grubber. After breaking Smith's tackle on his own 10 metre line Vatuvei was able to pull away and was not touched again, going 95 metres for his 17th try for the year.
Johnson slotted the pressure kick to shorten the lead to 16-6 with four minutes gone in the second stanza.
Vatuvei's breakthrough rejuvenated the Auckland-based squad but the Panthers simply did not give allow them any margin to claw back into the contest.
This was evident even when the Vodafone Warriors looked a sure bet to score. Feleti Mateo crashed over the line shortly after the Vatuvei try, only to be held up by Jamal Idris and company in a swarming goal-line parry. That would be as close as the visitors came for the game's remainder.
The Panthers were afforded a chance to add to their lead in the 64th when Ben Matulino was penalised for a high tackle on second-rower Lewis Brown. Soward added the two to extend the lead to 18-6.
This lead was locked-down ten minutes later when Penrith pieced together a complete team try.
Prop Nigel Plum took the ball forward and was then able to spring a second phase right near the posts with a clever offload. The ball went through the hands to Moylan who fittingly notched up another try assist.
The fullback spotted the Vodafone Warriors' right edge creeping forwards and punched through a grubber which sat up neatly for the galloping Watene-Zelezniak to nab his second try of the night in the 74 minute.
Soward's kick was wide but the Panther faithful were not fazed; their side had locked up their best ladder ranking since they were runners-up in 2010.
For the Vodafone Warriors, meanwhile, the loss means a disappointing end to a promising season and their third straight year without a finals appearance.
Their search for a maiden premiership will continue next year, a season in which they will mark 20 years in the NRL.
Match details | Sportingbet Stadium, Penrith
Penrith Panthers 22 (Dallin Watene-Zelezniak 2, James Segeyaro, Moylan tries; Jamie Soward 2 conversions, penalty).
Vodafone Warriors 6 (Manu Vatuvei try, Shaun Johnson 1 conversion).
Halftime: Panthers 16-0
Referee: Shane Hayne.
Vodafone Warriors: Sam Tomkins; Ngani Laumape, Konrad Hurrell, Dominique Peyroux, Manu Vatuvei; Thomas Leuluai, Shaun Johnson; Jacob Lillyman, Nathan Friend, Ben Matulino; Ben Henry, Simon Mannering (c); Sione Lousi. Interchange: Sam Rapira, Suaia Matagi, Jayson Bukuya, Feleti Mateo.