Defending champions Penrith took a giant step towards a premiership three-peat with a 32-6 win over the Warriors at BlueBet Stadium on Saturday.
With James Fisher-Harris laying the line for superstar Nathan Cleary to take control of proceedings, the Panthers had the match well in hand when they led 20-0 at half-time.
Penrith struck the first blow in the fifth minute when Cleary went to the line and found prop Moses Leota who sent a perfectly timed long pass out to Brian To'o for his 18th try of the season. Cleary converted for a 6-0 lead.
Three minutes later a mistake by Isaah Yeo handed the Warriors a chance and Dylan Walker crossed wide out but the try was ruled out due to obstruction in the lead-up by Adam Pompey.
A slashing run by Dylan Edwards had the Warriors' defence stretched again but Cleary came up with a dropped ball and the opportunity went begging.
Brian To'o Try
Midway through the half the Warriors turned the ball over deep in their own territory and the Panthers made them pay when Liam Martin ran into a hole off a Cleary pass and the premiers led 12-0.
Some slick hands from Jack Cogger and Stephen Crichton on the left edge sent Sunia Turuva on his way and the Panthers had raced to an 18-0 lead.
The Warriors then showed plenty of resilience to hold out a number of sets on their own tryline but a late penalty against Pompey for crowding in the ruck gave Cleary a shot at penalty goal and the half-time score was 20-0.
Wayde Egan Try
A dropped ball by Yeo gave the Warriors an early chance in the second half but it came to nothing after a poor pass out of dummy half by Wayde Egan.
Two crusher tackle penalties against Tohu Harris and Walker in quick succession consigned the Warriors to more defence but they hung on and took the ball to the other end where Egan finished off great lead-up work by Rocco Berry and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak to score in the 57th minute.
Any hopes of a Warriors comeback were quickly snuffed out when the Panthers' left side clicked into gear and Turuva finished the movement to make it 26-6 with Cleary's conversion.
From 25 metres out Cleary then bamboozled the Warriors defence and grabbed a try of his own as the Panthers marched to their seventh consecutive win in finals matches.
In contrast the Warriors have not won a finals match since 2011 and will be desperate for their star playmaker Shaun Johnson to return from a calf injury for next week's home final against the winner of Sunday's Knights-Raiders game.
Match: Panthers v Warriors
Finals Week 1 -
Venue: BlueBet Stadium, Penrith
- Panthers prop Moses Leota left the field in the 26th minute for a HIA which he passed.
- Panthers prop James Fisher-Harris set the tone with 14 runs for 101 metres in his 32-minute stint to start the game.
- The Panthers racked up seven line breaks to none by the Warriors in the first half.
- The Panthers had 63 per cent of the ball in the first half and completed 22 of 24 sets.
- Panthers No.7 Nathan Cleary ran for 188 metres to go with a try, two line breaks and a try assist.
Sunia Turuva Try
- Warriors skipper Tohu Harris worked himself to a standstill with 56 tackles.
- The Panthers have won their past eight games against the Warriors.
- Panthers winger Brian To’o has scored 13 tries in 11 games at BlueBet Stadium in 2023. He ran for 173 metres and broke11 tackles.
- Warriors skipper Tohu Harris was placed on report in the 51st minute for a crusher tackle.
- A crowd of 21,525 was on hand at BlueBet Stadium.
- Panthers fullback Dylan Edwards ran for 209 metres and had five tackle breaks.
Barnett back to save the day
Play of the Game
Nathan Cleary produced something very special in the 21st minute to set up the Panthers' second try. The star playmaker went to the line on the fourth tackle and slipped a late offload, losing a boot as he went to the ground. Cleary then leapt to his feet and got into position to take the first pass off the ruck on the next play, going to the line and putting the ball on a platter for a hard-charging Liam Martin to score. No boot, no worries, for the Panthers supremo.
Liam Martin Try
What They Said
"It was a bit of a carnival out there today; I just think it was something special around the whole community this week. [Nathan Cleary] played really well today, some really good goal kicks as well that sort of kept the lead at the right kind of number. I thought he defended really well. I think it was pretty obvious today there was a really big carrot at the end of this game (earning direct qualification to the preliminary finals), having been through it last year we sort of know the road and to earn your spot in the prelim final is a huge deal. We’re stoked." – Panthers coach Ivan Cleary.
Panthers: Finals Week 1
"We got a real good finals lesson. You've got to build pressure, when you build pressure you look a different football team... when you build pressure you give yourself an opportunity to win, and we didn't do that. [Penrith] were super good. You're not coming here expecting them to beat themselves... but we didn't put them under pressure. It's awesome to get to go home [next week]... we just have to make sure we get up for the game mentally, but also that we put our energy into the right things." – Warriors coach Andrew Webster.
Warriors: Finals Week 1
The Panthers are now just one win from the grand final and will enjoy a week off ahead of a home preliminary final. The Warriors face the winner of Sunday's Knights-Raiders clash in a sudden-death semi-final in week two in Auckland.