The Vodafone Warriors’ seesawing rivalry with the Penrith Panthers includes two shared coaches, several stars who have turned out for both clubs, a preliminary final and a truckload of points. But after 22 seasons, it’s the Panthers who hold the advantage after getting the better of the Vodafone Warriors in recent years.
Overall record: Played 37 – Penrith won 20, Vodafone Warriors won 16, draws 1; Penrith scored 949 points, Vodafone Warriors scored 857 points).
Biggest wins: Penrith – 62-6 at Centrebet Stadium, 2013; Vodafone Warriors – 52-8 at Ericsson Stadium, 2001.
Longest winning streaks: Penrith – 6 matches (2003-05); Vodafone Warriors – 4 matches (2010-12).
Finals: Played 1 – Penrith won 1.
Most appearances: Craig Gower (Penrith) – 17; Stacey Jones (Vodafone Warriors) – 17; Simon Mannering (Vodafone Warriors) – 17; Sam Rapira (Vodafone Warriors) – 16; Manu Vatuvei (Vodafone Warriors) – 16; Tony Puleuta (Penrith) – 15; Luke Lewis (Penrith) – 14; Trent Waterhouse (Penrith) – 14.
Most tries: Manu Vatuvei (Vodafone Warriors) – 12; Luke Rooney (Penrith) – 10; Rhys Wesser (Penrith) – 10; Ryan Girdler (Penrith) – 9; Logan Swann (Vodafone Warriors) – 7.
Most points: Ryan Girdler (Penrith) – 113; Preston Campbell (Penrith) – 80; Michael Gordon (Penrith) – 76; James Maloney (Vodafone Warriors) – 50; Manu Vatuvei (Vodafone Warriors) – 48; Luke Walsh (Penrith).
1995-2002 – Warriors and Panthers jockey for position
The Auckland Warriors had an instant connection with Penrith after signing the Panthers’ greatest-ever player, 1991 grand final-winning skipper Greg Alexander, for their debut campaign. The two-time Kangaroo tourist’s acquisition was a huge coup and he provided excellent leadership at the club in their first two seasons.
But ‘Brandy’ was sidelined when the Warriors faced his former club for the first time, which saw Ryan Girdler score 18 points and legendary Kiwis halfback Gary Freeman cross for two tries in Penrith’s 34-16 win in Auckland. Alexander was on deck for a homecoming to the foot of the Blue Mountains in 1996, however, featuring in a 26-16 Warriors win that included a Marc Ellis double.
Alexander returned to the Panthers for the 1997 Super League season, with both sides notching a home win that year. Gene Ngamu’s field goal proved the difference in their sole 1998 encounter, won 15-14 by the Warriors at Mt Smart.
Both clubs then notched three-match winning streaks (Penrith from 1999-2000, Vodafone Warriors from 2001-02) in a remarkable streak of high-scoring games, with the six encounters averaging points aggregates of almost 60 points a game.
The Vodafone Warriors asserted their status as a rising force in 2001 with a 52-8 drubbing of the Panthers at Mt Smart, with Justin Murphy, Clinton Toopi, Francis Meli and Logan Swann all bagging two tries. Later that year at Penrith, Meli and Stacey Jones scored doubles while Ivan Cleary kicked eight-from-eight in a 48-32 win for the Vodafone Warriors – just the seventh match in premiership history to produce 80 points at the time.
2003-05 – Premiership winners are grinners
Penrith marked its remarkable surge from also-ran to NRL champion with three victories over the Vodafone Warriors in 2003. Rhys Wesser blazed over for a hat-trick in a 28-14 win in round seven while Preston Campbell repeated the feat – and added five goals for a 22-point haul – five weeks later in a 34-12 hammering.
But the Vodafone Warriors rallied late in the season to join the Panthers in the finals, where they squared off for a berth in the big one.
Preliminary Final, 2003 – Panthers outlast Vodafone Warriors
The Vodafone Warriors’ memorable charge through the 2003 playoffs – including brilliant wins over the Bulldogs and Canberra after finishing sixth – came to an end courtesy of minor premier Penrith in an absorbing prelim. Tries to Panthers backline guns Rhys Wesser and Luke Lewis were cancelled out by four-pointers to Vodafone Warriors forwards Logan Swann and Richard Villasanti as the teams headed to the sheds locked at 10-all, but Luke Priddis and Ryan Girdler both crossed to give the favourites a crucial 12-point break in the second half. Clinton Toopi pegged one back, but it was former Vodafone Warriors powerhouse Joe Galuvao who sealed the victory for the Panthers with their fifth try with 18 minutes left. Brent Webb’s late try was pure consolation for the Vodafone Warriors, who dipped of the finals race to the eventual champs 28-20.
The Panthers parlayed that dominance in ’03 into three more wins over the Vodafone Warriors. Amos Roberts – playing just his second game for the Panthers after moving from St George Illawarra – scored four tries in a 42-22 win early in 2004, while in 2005 the Vodafone Warriors became just the 12th team ever to score 34 points or more and lose as the Panthers prevailed 42-34.
2006-12 – Vodafone Warriors declaw Panthers
The Vodafone Warriors redressed the balanced in the ensuing seven seasons, losing just three of 12 games against Penrith. The clubs’ clashes remained high-scoring, however, with four of the five encounters from 2007-09 producing 62-plus points.
Michael Witt scored 20 points in the Vodafone Warriors’ 54-14 win midway through 2007, while Penrith winger Michael Gordon tallied 22 points in a 46-22 success the following season. The rivals created more history in late-2009.
Round 21, 2009 – Extraordinary draw
Penrith and the Vodafone Warriors played out the equal fourth-highest scoring draw in the history of the code, unable to be separated at 32-all in 2009. But that only told part of the story of an extraordinary match at the foot of the mountains. Despite languishing out of finals contention, the Vodafone Warriors powered to a 32-6 lead over the fifth-placed Panthers, with centre Joel Moon scoring four tries. The hosts looked dead and buried up against a 26-point deficit with 27 minutes left, but they managed to find their way over the try-line four times before Michael Gordon slotted a 77th-minute penalty to send the match into extra-time. Incredibly – after the sides piled on 64 points in regulation time – the additional 10 minutes failed to produce a winning score, and the spoils were shared. If the Panthers had won, it would have equalled the biggest comeback victory of all time.
After suffering a 40-12 loss at home early in 2010, the Vodafone Warriors chalked up four straight victories over the Panthers for the first time – including in Round 14 of 2012, when former Vodafone Warriors coach Ivan Cleary returned to Mt Smart for the first time as coach of the Panthers and endured a 30-16 defeat.
2012-16 – Mountain men climb back
Former Panthers mentor Matt Elliott’s first visit back to Penrith as the Vodafone Warriors’ coach was an experience he’d prefer to forget, with the visitors suffering a demoralising 6-62 loss. Ex- Vodafone Warriors Isaac John (three tries) and Lewis Brown (two tries) starred in the Panthers’ rampage, while Luke Walsh kicked 11-from-11.
Remarkably, the Vodafone Warriors went on to win their next five games that season, but a 24-28 upset loss to the Panthers in Auckland in round 23 – with wingers David Simmons and Josh Mansour both scoring doubles for the visitors – proved a critical blow to their finals hopes.
The Panthers won six of seven games against the Vodafone Warriors from 2012-16, culminating in an emphatic 30-16 victory at Christchurch’s AMI Stadium in 2016 featuring a Tyrone Peachey hat-trick. It was the first NRL match in the city for six years. The Vodafone Warriors struck back with a heart-stopping win over the finals-bound Panthers later in the year.
Round 21, 2016 – Magic Johnson secures golden point win
Young Vodafone Warriors three-quarters David Fusitu’a and Ken Maumalo scored tries to put the home side up 10-2 over Penrith at halftime in a crucial battle between the finals hopefuls. Fusitu’a’s second put the Vodafone Warriors ahead 16-8, but Panthers winger Josh Mansour crossed in the 64th and 73rd minutes to send the match into extra-time. It was the Vodafone Warriors’ fourth trip to golden point in five weeks, and they finally won one when Shaun Johnson weaved through the Panthers’ defence to score a brilliant solo try with only a minute of the added period remaining.
PLAYED FOR BOTH CLUBS
Greg Alexander: Penrith’s ultra-gifted, long-serving linchpin made the 1986 and ’90 Kangaroo Tour squads, before captaining the club to its maiden premiership in 1991. He was a prized signing for the Auckland Warriors’ 1995 debut and captained the fledgling outfit in ’96. After playing 37 games for the Warriors, the half/fullback returned to the Panthers before retiring in 1999 with 228 games at his junior club to his name.
Scott Pethybridge: The blonde-haired flyer played 34 games for the Panthers from 1994-96, before spending three seasons with North Sydney. Following the Bears’ demise, Pethybridge joined the Vodafone Warriors for the 2000 – managing 14 appearances but failing to score a try – and finished his NRL career at the Northern Eagles.
Joe Galuvao: Manurewa junior Galuvao began his career with the Warriors as a utility-back, playing 27 games from 1998-2000 but his big break came after joining the Panthers in 2002, starring in the club’s ’03 premiership triumph. Galuvao played four Tests for the Kiwis while at Penrith and made 78 NRL appearances, before stints with Souths, Parramatta and Manly, playing in grand finals with the latter two – including a win over the Vodafone Warriors in the 2011 decider.
Paul Whatuira: Another 2003 grand final winner who got his NRL start with the Vodafone Warriors – playing five games for the club in 2000 – Wainuiomata product Whatuira arrived at Penrith in ’02 after a season at Melbourne. The wiry centre played 62 games for the Panthers and made his Test debut for New Zealand in 2004, before joining Wests Tigers and winning another premiership. The 16-Test Kiwi’s career wound down with stints at Huddersfield and Parramatta.
Peter Lewis: New Zealand Maori and Cook Islands rep Lewis played 11 games for the Auckland Warriors in 1999, before resurfacing in the NRL with brief first-grade stints at Penrith (two games in 2003) and Parramatta (two games in 2006).
Lewis Brown: Riccarton Knights (Christchurch) junior Brown was picked up by the Vodafone Warriors after lower-grade stints in Sydney, making his NRL debut aged 22 in 2009. He played his first Test for the Kiwis in 2011 and scored a now-iconic try in the preliminary final that year against Melbourne that propelled the Vodafone Warriors into the decider. After 84 games in Auckland, Brown joined former Vodafone Warriors coach Ivan Cleary at Penrith in 2013 and made 66 first grade appearances across three seasons. The New Zealand Test regular linked with Manly in 2016.
Isaac John: Clever half John played nine NRL games for the Vodafone Warriors from 2009-11. Unable to see a way past Shaun Johnson and James Maloney, the Turangawaewae junior spent a year with Wakefield Trinity before returning to the NRL with Penrith in 2013. His three seasons at the foot of the mountains garnered 26 first grade games and a shock Kiwis call-up for the 2014 Anzac Test.
Elijah Taylor: Versatile Otahuhu Leopards product Taylor captained the Vodafone Warriors to their maiden NYC premiership success in 2010, before enjoying an outstanding rookie year the following season that included a try in the club’s grand final loss to Manly and a New Zealand Test debut. After 67 first grade games for the Vodafone Warriors, Taylor linked with Ivan Cleary at Penrith in 2014 and played 39 games before a mid-season shift to Wests Tigers in 2016.
Jeremy Latimore: Journeyman forward Latimore started his career at Parramatta in 2009 before playing 24 games in two seasons with the Vodafone Warriors. He spent the bridging 2012 season at St George Illawarra ahead of a move to Penrith, where he played 75 games in four years. Latimore joined Cronulla in 2017.
Suaia Matagi: Hard-running cult hero prop Matagi debuted for the Vodafone Warriors as a 25-year-old in 2013 after overcoming a troubled background, playing 36 games for the club before making the mid-season jump to the Roosters in 2015. Matagi was snapped up by the Panthers for 2016 – playing a career-high 23 games – before moving again to the Eels. The front-row powerhouse has represented Toa Samoa and New Zealand at Test level.
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