A David Fusitu'a hat-trick has helped the New Zealand Warriors finally seal their first finals appearance in seven seasons as Penrith stutter into September with a momentum issue courtesy of a 36-16 mauling in Auckland on Friday night.
Coming off a one point loss to the Bulldogs last weekend – their fifth in nine matches – and with the West Tigers clinging onto their tail in the playoff race, some had already written off the Warriors.
But after the six tries-to-three thrashing of the Panthers, hold the back page.
As the Telstra Premiership's most unpredictable team are want to do, the Warriors produced some of their trademark razzle dazzle with Fusitu'a the chief benefactor - the hat-trick sending the flying winger to the top of the NRL try-scoring list with 21, leap-frogging Cronulla's Valentine Holmes (19).
While the Warriors prepare to host Canberra in their final club season game at Mt Smart Stadium, a second straight loss is a serious blow to the Panthers regaining a top-four spot.
Match: Warriors v Panthers
Round 24 -
Venue: Mt Smart Stadium, Auckland
More bad news came with a suspected broken left forearm to international centre Dean Whare in the 27th minute. He was taken to hospital after the game.
It would seem Whare's Telstra Premiership season is done, as it continues a bad run of luck with injuries to outsides backs. The Panthers currently have no James Maloney (knee), Jarome Luai (ankle), or Dylan Edwards (shoulder). They have also missed Josh Mansour (face) and Waqa Blake (ankle) in lengthy lay-offs this year.
Interim coach Cameron CIraldo will be sweating on the fitness of Maloney for their final regular season clash against Melbourne but like the Warriors, the best they can probably hope for now is fifth or sixth place and a home final rather than the safely valve of a top-four second life.
Conventional wisdom had the Warriors struggling without injured five-eighth Blake Green and scratched centre Gerard Beale. But the reintroduction of Tohu Harris to the starting line-up after seven weeks out injured, camouflaged any such concerns.
The rangy second rower was a constant threat down the right edge in tandem with halfback Shaun Johnson.
With Issac Luke running from dummy-half and Agnatius Paasi a bullocking presence on attack and defence, this was just what Warriors fans ordered.
There were some defensive lapses late in the second half as the Panthers landed two consolation tries, but this was a comprehensive performance.
The Warriors rode a wave of early possession and a favourable penalty count to an 18-4 halftime lead, with the Panthers barely touching the footy, much less breaching the home side's 20-metre line, in the first quarter.
The alarm bells rang early for the Panthers when Shaun Johnson slotted a third minute penalty from in front after Reagan Campbell-Gillard tackled Simon Mannering off the ball following a half break by stand-in five-eighth Mason Lino.
The Panthers prop was then sold a huge dummy by Warriors opposite Paasi who crashed over with Dallin Watene-Zelezniak on his coat-tails in a short dash from dummy-half.
David Fusitu'a scored his 19th try of the season at the end of a sweeping Warriors backline move to make it 12-0 in the 23rd minute.
The Panthers could rightly feel aggrieved as the winger's try came after Reagan Campbell-Gillard was penalised for stripping Warriors fullback Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, a tough call for what looked nothing more than a jarring shot.
Campbell-Gillard's evening got worse when he was brushed aside by half Mason Lino who then dragged James Fisher-Harris and Watene-Zelezniak with him over the try line to make it 18-0 with Johnson's easy conversion.
Josh Mansour played soccer with the ball and regathered to give the Panthers hope with a try just before halftime.
But the massive weight of Warrior possession and scoreboard pressure was always going to take its toll on Penrith. The visitors needed a fast start after halftime but it was the Warriors who quickly wrestled back the initiative with Fusitu'a crashing over for his second following a bomb fumble from Fisher-Harris.
Try as they might, there was no coming back for the Panthers and especially not when Fusitu'a sealed his hat-trick after a break from Johnson to make it 28-4.
Late tries from Waqa Blake and Trent Merrin will at least give the Panthers something positive to take into the final weeks of the regular season but Ciraldo needs to come up with something special to arrest this late season slide.
News & Notes: Warriors snapped a three game losing streak against Penrith.. forward Tohu Harris returned after seven weeks out with knee injuries; Warriors utility Peta Hiku played his 100th NRL game...The Warriors stay at home to welcome Canberra next week with Simon Mannering playing his 300th game ... The Panthers travel to Melbourne to face Storm...The Australian Police beat the New Zealand Police 24-16 in Friday's curtain raiser: Crowd: 17,195.
Fusitu'a puts Warriors further ahead