Late Penrith converted try sinks NZ Warriors
Warriors fans at Mt Smart Stadium were stunned into silence by a leaked try to the Panthers three minutes from fulltime as the home side suffer their sixth consecutive loss.
The 18-16 defeat will surely heap more pressure on under-fire coach Brian McClennan, though his side showed far more character in this display than in recent weeks.
The Warriors looked like they might be capable of halting their horror slide but had to battle against a mountain of Panthers possession in the final quarter as they defended a vulnerable four-point lead.
In the end, they coughed up a try to Panthers wing Travis Robinson from close range and Luke Walsh landed the handy conversion for victory.
The Warriors' injury crisis also deepened with plucky hooker Nathan Friend suffering a dislocated shoulder in the first half that will surely end his season.
The casualties continued throughout the second spell and left the Warriors severely limited with their interchange options as the Panthers mounted continuous attacks - for what seemed to be an inevitable try - to steal the game.
It meant a prize scalp for Panthers coach Ivan Cleary, who vacated the Warriors job at the end of last year.
Cleary wasn't taking too much satisfaction from it though, declaring in typically honest fashion: "It looked like two teams that haven't won much this year - luckily it was our day today."
The result means, with two rounds to play, the Warriors are still battling to avoid the wooden spoon.
The Panthers are still in that position too, meaning Cleary wasn't prepared to comment on the predicament of the Warriors or his besieged successor, McClennan.
"We've got enough problems in our own back yard. The (Warriors) club are obviously smart enough to work out how to go forward," Cleary said.
As Cleary noted, these were two desperate teams, lacking cohesion and imagination for much of the Mt Smart match - befitting their lowly places on the table.
But the Warriors will be devastated they let this one slip.
For so long they looked like they might be able to notch a vital win.
"It wasn't the result that we all wanted, but I'm pretty proud of the effort that was put in," McClennan said.
He wasn't prepared to speculate on his future, saying all he could do was control what was in front of him - tackling the Dragons across the Tasman next weekend.
With Micheal Luck playing good minutes and Elijah Taylor back in the mix there was certainly more defensive steel displayed than the last two routs.
Ben Henry, who moved to the centres to replace the axed Konrad Hurrell, scored two tries.
But it all amounted to nothing and the ground was stunned into silence over the final stanza.
The Warriors play the Dragons next Saturday away, and host Canberra in their last match the following week.
The Warriors got the start they wanted when centre Ben Henry scored after five minutes, latching on to a James Maloney grubber kick that the Panthers failed to control.
The Panthers coughed up the second try for the Warriors too, throwing an intercept for Shaun Johnson to race 80m for the invaluable touchdown and a 10-nil lead.
Just when it looked like the Warriors might be able to go a half game of football without conceding a point, they coughed up a converted try right before the break. Penrith hooker Kevin Kingston finished off a good passing interchange, which ripped up the middle of the park, to the posts.
Crucially, the Warriors were first to score after the interval, rewarded for their best attacking spell when play switched from right to left and then back to the right, where Henry was given some space and dummied through a gap for the touchdown.
Play degenerated there with both sides guilty of sloppy handling. But the Panthers snapped out of that at the end of the third quarter with Lachlan Coote muscling his way free of the attempted tackle of his opposite James Maloney to score from close range. Luke Walsh's conversion narrowed the Warriors' lead to just four points.
Then Robinson scrambled his way over to heap more heartbreak on the New Zealand franchise.
The Junior Warriors got their campaign back on track with an 18-16 win over the Panthers in the curtain-raiser.
Warriors 16: Ben Henry 2, Shaun Johnson tries; James Maloney 2 goals.
Panthers 18: Kevin Kingston, Lachlan Coote, Travis Robinson tries; Luke Walsh 3 goals.