The Vodafone Junior Warriors held on to hand runaway competition leader Penrith just its second defeat of the season with a thrilling 30-28 victory in Saturday's 21st-round NYC encounter at Mount Smart Stadium.
The Panthers came into the contest six points clear on the table and gave the home side an anxious final eight minutes when they threatened to steal victory.
After falling 22-30 behind with 12 minutes to play, Penrith responded with a converted Jack Nelson try to trail just 28-30 after 72 minutes.
They couldn’t break the Vodafone Junior Warriors’ resolve, though, as they resisted one raid after another to protect their two-point advantage for their eighth win of the year.
It lifted them to 20 points to sit two points outside the top eight with five games to play.
A tight opening half hour produced just two tries, Vodafone Junior Warriors fullback Kane Telea scoring the first off an inside ball from late inclusion Bunty Afoa. The opening followed a break by centre Junior Pauga who was stopped just short of the line on the left before shifting back to the right.
Penrith responded to take a 6-4 lead but two tries in the last few minutes of the spell gave the Vodafone Junior Warriors a 14-6 lead at the break.
From a 35th-minute scrum, they went to a short left, Pauga getting on the outside to scorch 35 minutes for a brilliant try.
Then right on halftime another inside ball – this time from Erin Clark – put Joseph Price in for a try Pauga converted.
The second half couldn’t have opened any better when right wing Lewis Soosemea went low to burrow over for a try, Pauga converting and the lead was out to 20-6 after 43 minutes.
It was a solid advantage but in the space of eight minutes it was shot to pieces as the Panthers steadied and then hit the Vodafone Junior Warriors with three tries to convert a 14-point deficit into a 22-20 lead with 20 minutes still to play.
The home side was in danger of being stung again but responded well to the setbacks, Pauga making a long break down the left with Matt Faitotoa zipping out of dummy half to score.
When Clark added his side’s sixth try in the 67th minute the lead was 30-22, invaluable at eight points but certainly not safe.
So it proved as Penrith engineered Nelson’s converted try to close to 28-30.
It made for a frantic, anxious last eight minutes but the Vodafone Junior Warriors found the will and a way to close it out for a crucial victory which keeps them within range to push for a place in the finals.
Match details | Mount Smart Stadium, Auckland
Vodafone Junior Warriors 30 (Kane Telea, Junior Pauga, Joseph Price, Lewis Soosemea, Matt Faitotoa, Erin Clark tries; Junior Pauga 3 conversions).
Penrith Panthers 28 (Corey Waddell 2, Wayde Egan, Tyrone May, Jack Nelson tries; Jarome Luai 4 conversions).
Halftime: 14-6 Vodafone Junior Warriors.
Referees: Phil Henderson and Josh McGowan.
Vodafone Junior Warriors | Kane Telea; Lewis Soosemea, Marata Niukore, Junior Pauga, Matt Faitotoa; Erin Clark, Chanel Harris-Tavita; Joseph Vuna, Nathaniel Roache, Mattais Heimuli; Ofahiki Ogden, Bunty Afoa; Chris Sio. Interchange: Sheldon Pitama, Melino Fineanganofo, Joseph Price, Jerome Mamea.