Round 10: Penrith Panthers v. New Zealand Warriors (AMI Stadium, 14/05/16)

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It was an appropriately eventful match for the first NRL game in Christchurch in six years as the Panthers hosted the Warriors at AMI Stadium on Saturday afternoon. While the Panthers often seem to acclimatise well to cold-climate matches, strong winds saw them buffeted all over the field, especially during the first half. For the most part, the wind worked in the Warriors’ favour but even there it led to an especially error-prone and erratic game.

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In many ways, the most exciting points of the evening occurred in the first half hour and last twenty minutes, with the opening, in particular, offering one of the most blistering displays from both teams for some time. After kicking the first try of the game for the Riff, Jamie Soward went on to convert and then land a penalty goal moments later. When Tyrone Peachey brought down a four-pointer shortly after, Soward put the icing on the cake once again, bringing Penrith to 14 of their overall 30 in the first twenty minutes of the game.

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On the other side of the Steeden, the Warriors saw a beautiful hat trick of tries from Solomone Kate (5), Jonathan Wright (25) and Blake Ayshford (31), all of which were converted seamlessly by Shaun Johnson despite the windy conditions. For a moment, it seemed as if New Zealand might have it, but that trio of six-pointers would end up being the last that they would score over the entire evening. Likewise, Johnson’s superb conversion game – one of his most consistent all season – was soured by a series of errors that provided the Panthers with their early surge. Offloading the Steeden in the in-goal area in the first couple of minutes of the game, he pretty much gifted the ball to Soward, while an error shortly after – kicking a restart on the full – gave Penrith the advantage as Peachey burned down field to score.

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In other words, Johnson was effectively responsible for Penrith’s first two tries. Whether it was the unfamiliar venue, the windy conditions or the disorientation of the Warriors at large is anybody’s guess, but it was pretty strange to see Johnson suffer these kinds of fumbles and brainsnaps, since he’s usually one of the most composed players on the field, even if he hasn’t been the most consistent over the last couple of weeks. Conjoined with RTS’ absence and Issac Luke’s demotion from the Kiwis, it seemed to spell the end of the new look Warriors spine – at least for the moment – especially since New Zealand should have had the advantage in what was effectively a home game.

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By contrast, Soward and Peachey were both dominant, with Peachey bringing in a hat trick of tries that would have been a resume for Origin if he were eligible, providing what felt like the first really comfortable win that the Panthers have had for some weeks and the first time this year that they have won by more than a margin of ten. For that reason, it must have been a bit of a cathartic match for Riff fans, who have spent most of the season with their hearts in their mouths as close game after close game comes down to the line. In fact, last night felt like it could be yet another one of those games, until Peachey came back at the 60th minute with the first Penrith four-pointer since he scored in the 20th, while a try from Dallin Watene-Zeleniak at 73 and another from Peachey himself at 76 sealed the deal for Penrith in the most dramatic and exciting way.

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Not only did that bring the Panthers into the top eight but it made a bit of a break from the regular pattern of matches this season. In a year in which so much has been decided just before or after half time, Saturday afternoon’s showdown didn’t feature a single point scored in the twenty minutes before and after the break. Bookended by a blistering opening and closing act, the middle part of the game was a bit of a void – a windy void – in which the ground and conditions felt as much of a character as the darkened southwestern corner of Kogarah Oval on Friday night, in what amounted to one of the most atmospheric games so far this season.

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