No SJ, no RTS, no Tohu – but no problem as wounded Warriors shock Panthers in epic Magic Round boilover

The Warriors have pulled off one of the upsets of the season, downing the reigning Premiers Penrith 22-20 at Magic Round despite missing a host of their biggest names.

Shorn of talismanic figures Shaun Johnson, Tohu Harris and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and then forced to deal without influential hooker Wayde Egan thanks to an early concussion, the Wahs put on a masterclass of controlled, composed footy against an uncharacteristically wasteful Penrith.

Te Maire Martin and Taine Tuaupiki were the stars, adding the needed class to turn huge advantages in field position and possession into points during a second half stint with Isaah Yeo sat in the bin.

The Panthers were dreadful for over an hour, dropping the ball constantly and inviting their opponents to attack at will.

Their class is such that they very nearly won it anyway, with Jarome Luai, Dylan Edwards and Yeo to the fore.

Having survived a first half onslaught, tries from Yeo and Izack Tago appeared to have turned the game around – only for Andrew Wester’s wounded Warriors to find another reserve of effort to turn it around through a late Tuaupiki try.

James Fisher-Harris, who will join the Wahs next year, found himself on report for a suspected hip drop tackle and might miss next week’s trip to table-topping Cronulla, but after this result, it might not matter: the Sharks will go into Origin ahead of Penrith whatever the outcome next Saturday in the Shire.

The half time stats were bonkers: 57% of the ball – 22 sets to 16 – and a massive 74% of possession, with 25 tackles within 20m to just two. In fact, the Panthers had just nine tackles inside the Warriors half at all.

Ali Leiataua scores his first-ever NRL try! ????#NRLWarriorsPanthers

— NRL (@NRL) May 19, 2024

Yet they went in behind. It was, at least in part, because the Panthers are such a well-oiled defensive machine, but also a testament to who wasn’t there for the Warriors.

No Johnson, no RTS, no Luke Metcalf and, shortly after the start, no Egan. Throw in Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad out of position at five eighth and it wasn’t surprising that this wasn’t the most cohesive attacking performance.

But as good as Penrith are defensively, they’re not perfect.

The line shuttled and shuttled, but eventually was broken by Martin and CNK combining to get Montoya over. As is now typical for the Warriors, he got injured putting the ball down.

Though the Panthers did little but defend, they were able to generate points – and the manner of them said as much about who was on the field for the Wahs as anything else.

Superb athleticism from Marcelo Montoya! #NRLWarriorsPanthers

— NRL (@NRL) May 19, 2024

Tuaupiki took the first kick-off of the game too long and gifted field position from which Edwards took immediate advantage.

Luai went the length to score, but was initially let through the line by Paul Roache, who had only accrued two minutes of first grade all season prior to Egan’s injury, which forced him in at dummy half.

For 50 minutes, the Panthers could only point the finger at themselves for their plight.

It’s not an overstatement to suggest that this was the worst performance of their dynasty, littered with errors and inviting a Warriors team that they should have been lapping into a lead.

Jarome Luai with some razzle dazzle! ????#NRLWarriorsPanthers @Telstra Moment of the Match

— NRL (@NRL) May 19, 2024

It was 16-10, but they were lucky to have the 10.

Once Yeo returned from the bin, however, he began to lead them forward. It wasn’t just the try he scored, though that helped, but also his calmness and defensive edge.

The lock forced an error from Nicoll-Klokstad and, when the team needed it, put the ball-playing away to focus on straight, authoritative running, before rolling out the passing again in good ball.

Ultimately, this was two good systems playing off, and one of them working better in the crucial moments.

The Warriors collective worked to win the field position and possession battle, but the Panthers defensive unit was strong enough to limit the amount of points against at a time when the attack was repeatedly punching itself in the face.

But even this Panthers rearguard is not infallible and, in the end, gave itself too much to do.

Yeo, Edwards and Luai looked like they might have rescued it, and had they been able to it, Ivan Cleary might have pointed to the defence that kept the Panthers in the fight for long enough for the attack to kick in.

But the task was too much, even for them. The Wahs played the long game and got their rewards.

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