19 May, 2024 06:30 AM4 mins to read

Warriors 22

Panthers 20

Warriors vs Panthers - Figure 1
Photo New Zealand Herald

Ten players missing, a five-game winless run and the three-time defending champions in the opposite corner.

But even with their monumental challenge only increasing after kickoff, the Warriors recorded one of their most famous recent wins.

Andrew Webster’s injury-ravaged side pulled off a stunning upset of Penrith on Sunday afternoon, putting an unlikely spell on the reigning premiers in Magic Round at Suncorp Stadium.

The Warriors’ season had seemed destined to fall further into a tailspin, without a victory since early April while facing a high-flying Panthers side riding a four-game winning run.

Yet after falling into an early hole, and despite being forced to play most the match without any member of their first-choice spine, the team rediscovered some of last year’s wizardry to kickstart this campaign.

“We needed that, we really did,” halfback Te Maire Martin told Fox Sports. “We’ve been in a bit of a rut the last couple of weeks, and to come out of that with a win against a side like Penrith is huge.

“Sometimes it works in your favour, having a few of your top fellas out. You need people to step up. We had that feeling at the start of the week, we were still confident we could do stuff.”

Warriors vs Panthers - Figure 2
Photo New Zealand Herald

What they did was hand the Panthers only their third defeat in 10 games, running in four tries against the sternest defence in the competition. And victory was thoroughly deserved.

With the makeshift halves combination of Martin and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad repeatedly opening up the opposition, and with young duo Taine Tuaupiki and Ali Leiataua making key contributions at fullback and centre, the Warriors spent large stretches in command.

After, that is, Tuaupiki put the opening kickoff out on the full and the Panthers made him pay within 90 seconds. And after Wayde Egan’s return to the starting side lasted less than 12 minutes before being ruled out through a head knock, a troubling development for a player with a history of concussion issues.

Wayde Egan is helped off the field after a head knock. Photo / Photosport

The hooker’s absence only added to a casualty ward headlined by Shaun Johnson and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, one that also grew in number on Saturday when skipper Tohu Harris was ruled out with a finger injury.

Yet with all those concerns, the Warriors played carefree football. They were missing only the final touch during a first half in which they had more of the ball, a better completion rate, fewer tackles missed and half as many errors as the opposition.

Warriors vs Panthers - Figure 3
Photo New Zealand Herald

Mitch Barnett was immense in and out of possession, repelling the Panthers in the tackle as easily as he pushed them back in the carry, while Dylan Walker provided a more than able companion in both aspects.

Yet this was still the Panthers, overflowing with finals experience. Even without the guiding hand of long-term absentee Nathan Cleary, they were surely confident of shaking off their shaky start and adding to a 10-4 halftime lead.

But when Isaah Yeo went to the sin bin — caught out by a quick tap from Nicoll-Klokstad, excelling in his second career start at five eighth — the Warriors added 12 points against 12 players through tries for Leiataua and Adam Pompey.

And when ill-discipline and errors threatened to consume their game at exactly the wrong moment — as Penrith were allowed back in front with 12 minutes to play — Webster’s men belied their callow nature to retake the lead.

Martin pulled the strings to put Tuaupiki across before the second-year fullback slotted a tricky conversion, showing a cool head that Dylan Edwards was unable to match with a last-minute penalty attempt.

As his impressed teammate later revealed, Tuaupiki’s composure came despite some testing circumstances.

“It’s a big credit to Taine,” Martin said. “His partner’s due any day so he was 50-50 whether he was going to play. I know being a parent myself how your mind can be somewhere else, but I thought Taine did a huge job.

“It was a good opportunity for some of the young boys we have to get a game, and to taste [victory] in front of a crowd like that in Magic Round is huge.”

Warriors 22 (Marcelo Montoya, Ali Leiataua, Adam Pompey, Taine Tuaupiki tries; Taine Tuaupiki 3 cons)

Panthers 20 (Dylan Edwards, Jarome Luai, Isaah Yeo, Izack Tago tries; Dylan Edwards 2 cons)

HT: 10-4

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