Vodafone Junior Warriors hooker Erin Clark searching for a way through against Penrith. Image | Charles Knight | nrl.com

Penrith extinguished the Vodafone Junior Warriors’ hopes of a third consecutive NYC grand final by racing to a 50-16 win in tonight’s preliminary final at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane.

There was just 10 points in the contest at halftime when the Panthers led 14-4 but a contentious try in the opening minute of the second spell was the launching pad for the minor premiers to run away with it.

Playing their fifth consecutive match in Australia, the Vodafone Junior Warriors couldn’t find a way back into the encounter as they were denied the chance of making even more history in a competition they have claimed three times.

The final outcome was in stark contrast to the opening moments when the Vodafone Junior Warriors were on song. When they won the first penalty of the match, the repeat set paid an immediate dividend as it so often does in NYC football. They went to the right edge, fullback Brad Abbey going into contact, slipping an offload and centre Marata Niukore was over out wide after just five minutes.

With Ata Hingano’s conversion wide of the mark, the requirement was to complete from the restart but the Vodafone Junior Warriors made an error instead giving Penrith an opening to dictate.

Just four minutes later hooker Soni Luke caught the defence out from dummy half to level up at 4-4 with the conversion giving the Panthers a 6-4 edge.

The Vodafone Junior Warriors should have reclaimed the lead in the 18th minute when second rower Ofahiki Ogden busted tackles and was seemingly set to score himself – only he popped an off load to his right which wing Paul Ulberg was unable to take.

A heavy collision upset the Vodafone Junior Warriors’ rhythm when second rower Matiu Love-Henry went off for head knock, enabling the Panthers to build still more pressure as they forced back-to-back goal-line dropouts.

The defending premiers were having their defensive mettle tested and this time they couldn’t resist as Penrith shifted slickly to the left for wing Fuimanau Enese to cross and bring the ball closer to the posts. The try wasn’t converted, the Panthers out to a 10-4 lead after 25 minutes.

Tellingly the possession statistics were overwhelmingly in Penrith’s favour. By this stage they’d had 16 sets already, the Vodafone Junior Warriors only eight.

Just when they needed some help, Penrith turned possession over, Hingano shot through and interchange prop Amoni Tufui was somehow stopped. The Panthers conceded a penalty in the process but then turned the Vodafone Junior Warriors away again.

Almost immediately Penrith converted its goal-line defence into points. When Vodafone Junior Warriors wing Tomas Aoake brought a kick back out of defence he was rounded up in a three-man tackle, losing possession as he hit the ground. Right wing Dylan Edwards scooped up the loose ball and cruised in for a try eventually awarded after scrutiny from the video referees.

At 14-4 the heat was on the Vodafone Junior Warriors. They responded as halfback Kauri Aupouri poured through down the right, trying to position Ulberg but his transfer was stolen by the Panthers so snuffing out another likely try.

Having missed three try-scoring chances the Vodafone Junior Warriors had one last chance in the half but were again denied by Penrith’s impressive goal-line defence.

Given the significant disparity in the possession stakes – Penrith with a 23-15 edge in sets in possession – the Vodafone Junior Warriors would have been somewhat relieved to trail by only 10 points.

The minimum necessity was for them to be the first to score in the second half but they had the worst possible start.

The Panthers stormed downfield from the opening set, put up a bomb and Robert Jennings snared it ahead of Abbey, skirting around team-mate Brent Naden standing in front of him to go over.

At the very least it seemed to be a clear case of obstruction with Aoake denied a fair shot at Jennings. It was awarded a try on the ground but was referred upstairs for ratification. The evidence appeared to confirm an obstruction and also revealed a player who seemed to be offside. The video referees didn’t agree, the try stood and the Panthers had a 20-4 lead after 41 minutes.

The Vodafone Junior Warriors weren’t discouraged, hitting straight back with some wonderful last tackle off loads for captain Jazz Tevaga to go over, Hingano converting and the margin was back to 10 points again.  

From the restart the Vodafone Junior Warriors laid on the perfect set, Hingano launching a bomb for Abbey to chase. He contested it with Naden, grabbed his opposite and flung him behind the goal-line believing he had forced a dropout. Again there was a tough call with Abbey being penalised.

Instead of a repeat set and the prospect of cutting Penrith’s lead even further, the Vodafone Junior Warriors soon found themselves standing behind their own goal-line when interchange forward Kaide Ellis was able to score too easily. At 10-26, the Vodafone Junior Warriors had plenty of work in front of them just to regain a foothold in the contest but, after a superb late-season surge, it wasn’t happening this time.

Penrith stretched to 32-10 when Naden scored and the dream of a third straight grand final had slipped out of reach.

There was certainly fair cause for complaint about the decision to award Penrith its first try in the second half. While it changed the complexion of the game ultimately there was a sense the cumulative effect of five games on the road had caught up with the brave Vodafone Junior Warriors. They were also up against a high-quality side and the Panthers were in the mood to finish with a flourish.

There was time for Aoake’s 20th try in 22 matches this season but it was a disappointing end to the campaign at the Vodafone Junior Warriors fell to just their sixth loss in 23 finals matches in the eight seasons the competition has been running.

Match details | Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane

Penrith Panthers (1) 50 (Dylan Edwards 2, Soni Luke, Fuimanau Enese, Robert Jennings, Kaide Ellis, Corey Harawira-Naera, Tyrone May, Jake Ennis tries; Dylan Edwards 6 conversions; Reed Izzard conversion).

Vodafone Junior Warriors (7) 16 (Marata Niukore, Jazz Tevaga, Tomas Aoake tries; Ata Hingano conversion; Brad Abbey conversion).

Halftime: 14-4 Panthers.

Referees: Matt Noyen and Jon Stone.

Vodafone Junior Warriors | Brad Abbey; Paul Ulberg, Marata Niukore, Semisi Tyrell, Tomas Aoake; Ata Hingano, Kauri Aupouri; Bunty Afoa, Erin Clark, Paul Tuli; Ofahiki Ogden, Matiu Love-Henry; Jazz Tevaga (c). Interchange: Tyler Mohi, Mattais Heimuli, Amoni Tufui, Tualima Tualima.