Shaun Johnson injured as Warriors fail to rise to the occasion for departing hero Manu Vatuvei
The Warriors failed to give Manu Vatuvei the send off he deserved, but coach Stephen Kearney has bigger things to worry about after star halfback Shaun Johnson was struck down by a potentially serious knee injury.
With so much to play for in front of 13,067 people at 'Manu Vatuvei Stadium' on Friday night, this was a chance for Stephen Kearney's side to rise to the occasion.
Instead, they turned in another inconsistent performance for the home crowd at Mt Smart before unravelling at the back-end as a hat-trick from halfback Nathan Clearly led the Panthers to a crucial 34-22 victory.
The defeat dealt a huge blow to the Auckland rugby league club's finals hopes and depending on other results, they could find themselves six points outside the top eight by the end of the weekend with seven games left in the season.
And they could be without Johnson for all of the run home after he was forced from the field in the final quarter after dropping to the turf while chasing a break from Issac Luke.
Kearney said they would to wait for scans on Saturday, but admitted it could be serious.
"It's a knee injury so in terms of the extent of it I'm not 100 per cent sure so over the next 24 hours he'll get some scans but the early diagnosis is not a really good one," he said.
Johnson's departure was no excuse for the way they fell apart in the final 13 minutes, conceding three tries after leading 22-18.
While Vatuvei's new contract with Salford prevented him from playing, so much of the night was all about honouring one of the club's favourite sons before he departs for the UK on Sunday.
Mt Smart Stadium was renamed in his honour and his teammates formed a guard of honour as 'The Beast' walked onto the field with his family before kick-off. But the farewell fell flat when it mattered most during the match.
"We've been pretty mindful of it all week and I didn't think it was an issue," the coach said.
"We were focused on getting our jobs done and unfortunately at times there were individuals that simply didn't get them done.
"It was a special occasion for a special person and we wanted to try and honour that but the performance didn't do him justice, that's for sure."
The Panthers had injury concerns of their own with skipper Matt Moylan a late withdrawal and Kangaroos back-rower Trent Merrin forced off after 27 minutes due to a knee problem.
However, the Warriors were far too error-prone in the first half to make them pay.
Simon Mannering opened the scoring in the first two minute off a scything Johnson run.
But a David Fusitu'a mistake followed by a fifth-tackle penalty deep in their own territory allowed the visitors to respond through Corey Harawira-Naera.
The Warriors again let the Panthers off the hook when Johnson kicked out on the full before two superb offloads by Nathan Cleary and Merrin set up Moylan's replacement, rookie Tyrone May.
Cleary then showed his class, beating two tried forwards close to the line to reach over and give his side six-point buffer.
The Warriors had chances to equalise before the break but just weren't clinical enough with the ball, although Ken Maumalo was unlucky to be called back for a knock-on by the bunker, who overturned the on-field call of try.
It didn't take long for the rub of the green to fall the home team's way, though.
Harawira-Naera was sent to the sin bin for a professional foul early in the second half following a quick tap from Luke and the Warriors immediately made them pay via Kata's second try out wide.
The decision seemed to spark the forwards into action. Led by James Gavet, they churned through the metres in the middle of the park, with the halves making the most of the space created out wide as Bodene Thompson finished off a slick move down the right edge.
However, then came the crucial moment as Johnson was assisted from the field and the Warriors couldn't cope in his absence.
They needed someone to take the game by the scruff of the neck, but instead it was Cleary who stood up for the Panthers.
The son of former Warriors coach Ivan Cleary ran in two more tries before Waqa Blake finished the job, although they were aided by some pretty poor defence.
Not that Penrith coach Anthony Griffin was complaining as they moved two points above the Warriors in ninth place.
"It was just a mature effort from him tonight," Griffin said of Cleary. "He's just a really composed kid. We needed our halfback to get a job done and he dit beautifully."
NZ Warriors 22 (Solomone Kata 2, Simon Mannering, Bodene Thompson, tries; Shaun Johnson 2, Issac Luke goals) Penrith Panthers 34 (Nathan Cleary 3 Corey Harawira-Naera, Waqa Blake, Tyrone May tries; Cleary 5 goals). HT: 12-18