Panthers outlast Warriors in Christchurch
The Penrith Panthers’ decision to bring their NRL fixture against the New Zealand Warriors had already paid dividends with a sell-out crowd at AMI Stadium and several days of building a mountain of goodwill in the Canterbury community, but the club received the ultimate payoff courtesy of two valuable competition points from a 30-18 victory.
The Panthers had watched an early eight-point lead disappear, heading into halftime four points down, but they held the Warriors scoreless on a windy Christchurch night.
Warriors centre Solomone Kata scored the first NRL try in Christchurch since Kevin Locke’s last-minute match-winner against the Sydney Roosters six years ago, a hot-stepping, bulldozing effort on the last tackle inside the five-minute mark that brought the 18,000-strong throng to its feet.
Shaun Johnson slotted the conversion from out wide to give the ‘away’ side a handy 6-0 lead early.
But Johnson turned villain in the 12th minute. Forced back towards the Warriors’ in-goal by the Panthers’, the halfback attempted an ill-advised offload, allowing Jamie Soward to pounce for the easiest of four-pointers. Soward converted to level the scores.
Penrith piggybacked up-field from the restart through consecutive penalties, the second of which Soward kicked for an 8-6 advantage after 16 minutes.
Johnson’s evening went from bad to worse when he booted the ensuing kick-off out on the full, and the Panthers crossed again as Matt Moylan offloaded to send Tyrone Peachey over. Soward goaled again for 14-6.
The Warriors hit back in the 25th minute when Thomas Leuluai and Tuimoala Lolohea combined on the left edge, Lolohea throwing a superb cut-out for Jonathan Wright to dive over out wide before Johnson partially redeemed himself with a sideline conversion.
And Johnson’s recovery was complete at the half-hour mark when he cut the Panthers’ defence to ribbons and linked up with Bodene Thompson, who found Blake Ayshford to power his way over for the Warriors’ third try.
Despite the gusty conditions, the goalkickers were having a day out, Johnson caressing his angled conversion attempt through for an 18-14 lead.
Former Warriors prop Suaia Matagi looked set to level for Penrith three minutes before halftime when he reached out under the posts, but he was pinged for a double-movement and the Warriors maintained their four-point buffer.
Both sides survived several early attacking raids after the resumption as the atmosphere ratcheted up a couple of notches. Peachey finally broke the impasse in the 60th minute in almost a carbon copy of his first touchdown, cutting back on an angle from a Moylan pass.
Soward shut out the boos to edge the Panthers in front, 20-18.
The breeze picked up significantly in the second stanza and was wreaking havoc with both sides’ kicking games, but Penrith landed a crucial blow in the 73rd minute when Moylan and Whangarei junior James Fisher-Harris combined to open up a passage for Kiwi Test winger Dallin Watene-Zelezniak to produce a trademark diving finish.
Soward’s conversion shaded to the uprights – remarkably, the first unsuccessful kick of the night – to leave a glimmer of hope for the crowd favourites.
But it evaporated soon afterwards after the Warriors regained the ball from a short kick-off. Watene-Zelezniak intercepted a pass from Kata and streaked 50 minutes down the right-hand touchline, and Peachey raced over in the opposite corner a couple of plays later to put the game beyond doubt at 30-18.
It was a result that sent the vast majority of the crowd home unhappy, but the entertaining contest capped an unforgettable week for rugby league in Canterbury and confirmed Christchurch as the Panthers’ ‘home away from home’ for at least the next three years.
Canterbury next generation of rugby league stars provided the curtain-raisers, with Papanui Tigers playing Northern Bulldogs, Hornby Panthers taking on Celebration Lions, and Shirley Hawks going up against Sydenham Swans in three simultaneously played 20-minute junior matches as the grandstands began to swell.
The crowd was entertained during the halftime break by a junior club relay, which was taken out by the Linwood Keas.
WILL EVANS – CANTERBURY RUGBY LEAGUE