John Ackland has been denied a fitting farewell to a fractious final season at the New Zealand Warriors, as his beloved under-20s were unable to secure a third National Youth Competition title in the curtain raiser to the NRL grand final.
The Junior Warriors - in sudden death mode since qualifying sixth for the Holden Cup finals series survived three elimination games but could not add regular season runners-up Penrith to their victims as the Panthers survived a desperate fightback to win 42-30 at ANZ Stadium today.
Ackland, who guided the club's emerging talent to back-to-back premierships in 2010-11, announced in June he was quitting the pivotal development role after being unable to establish a working relationship with Warriors' head coach Matt Elliott.
A foundation member of the Warriors coaching structure in 1995, Ackland was upset his chances of winning another premiership had been compromised by Elliott's policy of incorporating young talent into the Auckland Vulcan's NSW Cup team to fast-track their development.
Ultimately Ackland's squad was reinforced when the finals series got underway and ironically the personnel reinstated displayed the benefits of their reserve grade exposure as the Warriors knocked out South Sydney, Sydney Roosters and the Canterbury Bulldogs.
However, the Warriors were not quite able to recover from a massive 34-6 deficit with half an hour remaining, although four answered tries caused plenty of anxiety for the Panthers until Waqa Blake crossed to seal the Panthers first NYC title five minutes from the siren.
The Panthers made an ominous start when star centre James Roberts broke the line from a defensive scrum and streaked 90-metres to the posts, opening a period of dominance the Warriors did well to survive without conceding more points.
Three consecutive penalties and two line drop outs had the Warriors in defensive mode and that staunchness was rewarded following their first foray deep into Panthers territory.
Front rower James Taylor's surge and their first penalty laid the platform for impressive second rower Raymond Fusitala-Mariner to scythe over from close range -- an aberration as the Panthers responded with two superb long range tries.
A somersaulting Roberts and instinctive support play by fullback Kieren Moss capped line breaks and on the half hour an excellent cut out pass by James Dunley put George Jennings over on the left flank to build a 16-point lead at the break.
Penrith ruled the opening 40 despite losing captain and halfback Daniel Foster to an ankle injury -- no impediment as the Panther made six line breaks to two on the back of seven more sets of possession.
Needing to mount a concerted recovery after halftime, the Warriors instead conceded a double within seven minutes of the restart to trail by 28.
A Taylor bust was again the catalyst for a try to fellow starting prop Albert Vete, while Eko Malu's dart over from dummy half after the Panthers conceded five penalties in quick succession set up a tense final quarter where the momentum swung to the underdogs.
Wing Meti Lisati reduced the deficit even further when he crossed in the right hand corner via a barge and offload by Faitala-Mariner and the Warriors received another boost in the 68th minute when Moss was sinbinned for a professional foul.
The Warriors capitalised on their numerical advantage through Vilami Lolohea to narrow the margin to four but centre Blake stepped through four defenders to spare the Panthers a calamitous defeat.
Warriors linchpin and Tongan hooker Siliva Havili suffered a leg injury late in the opening half, limped off with a leg injury late in the first half a setback that gave the Warriors brave but futile resurgence even greater credence.
Penrith Panthers 42 (James Roberts 2, Kieren Moss, George Jennings, Brendan Attwood, Mitch Clark, Waqa Blake tries; Bryce Cartwright 7 goals)
NZ Warriors 30 (Raymond Fusitala-Mariner, Albert Vete, Eko Malu, Metia Lisati, Viliami Lolohea tries; Mason Lino 5 goals)
- © Fairfax NZ News
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