The Penrith Panthers have booked their passage into the second week of the finals series, ending the season of the New Zealand Warriors with a 27-12 victory at ANZ Stadium on Saturday night.
The Warriors struggled to overcome a knee injury that forced skipper Roger Tuivasa-Sheck from the field in the 27th minute, as the Panthers lived up to their title as the comeback kings to fight back from an early 10-point deficit with 25 unanswered points.
Veteran five-eighth James Maloney, playing in his eighth finals campaign in the past nine years, orchestrated the victory to set up a week two showdown at Allianz Stadium against the loser of the Roosters-Sharks qualifying final.
"Having him is really valuable," Penrith coach Cameron Ciraldo said of Maloney.
"His experience out there. You just know he knows what to do in each moment. It's like having another coach out there. The whole week he's shown some great leadership qualities. I felt a couple of weeks ago you could see his intensity go up. He was rallying the troops. He's born for this time of year."
For the Warriors, it was a sad end to a season that promised so much but in the end delivered little more than the club's first finals appearance in seven years.
A loss on the opening week of the finals would have left the Panthers with egg on the face given their decision to punt coach Anthony Griffin just a month out from the finals.
However, rookie coach Ciraldo will live to fight another day as he aims to edge his side one step closer to the premiership that general manager Phil Gould said they were nowhere near winning under Griffin.
Match Highlights: Panthers v Warriors – Finals Week 1, 2018
Asked if the Panthers could do something special this year?
"Yeah I feel like we can win next week," Ciraldo said.
"Hopefully we can win the week after that and see how we go."
Warriors coach Stephen Kearney said his team had cause to be proud of their season despite an early finals exit.
"It's important to recognise [our improvement]," Kearney said of the Warriors' season.
"It's a pretty disappointed dressing room because we didn't put our best performance out there. But we have made some progress this year, there's no doubt about that."
As has so often been the case throughout the season, Penrith found themselves on the back foot early after a careless offload from Viliame Kikau saw Shaun Johnson dash away against the run of play. Issac Luke burrowed over from close range in the ensuing set to give the Warriors an early 6-2 lead.
The Warriors' hot potato brand of football paid dividends soon after, with David Fusitua capitalising on some impressive lead-up work to extend the lead to 12-2.
Cleary: Maloney is a warrior
The Panthers were staring down the barrel of an embarrassing finals exit, but a Maloney 40-20 in the 19th minute changed the course of the match.
Maloney's long-kicking game presented the Panthers with a golden opportunity to get themselves back into the contest, with Nathan Cleary's short-kicking game paving the way for Tyrone Peachey to dive on the loose ball and reduce the deficit to just four points.
The Panthers weren't done with there, as fullback Dallin Watene-Zelezniak busted through the middle of the field to link up with Maloney and give his side a 14-12 lead.
Then the night went from bad to worse for the visitors when Tuivasa-Sheck was carried from the field with a suspected medial ligament strain.
Match: Panthers v Warriors
Finals Week 1 -
Venue: ANZ Stadium
The Panthers then inflicted some more damage before the break, with Peachey capitalising on an overlap to grab his second try and an 18-12 half-time advantage.
The Warriors were unable to turn the tide in the second half, forced to do a mountain of defence before Christian Crichton finally found a way through to give the Panthers a 24-12 buffer with 26 minutes remaining.
With a quarter of the match still remaining, Maloney all but closed out the match with a one-pointer to extend his side's lead beyond two converted tries, before a Cleary penalty goal sealed the deal.
News & Notes: David Fusitua's 23rd try equalled the Warriors club record for most tries in a season set by Francis Meli in 2003... the Panthers have come through sudden-death in week one of the finals for the third year in a row after knocking out Manly in 2017 and Canterbury in 2016... Simon Mannering finished his NRL career on 301 appearances for the Warriors... Crowd 17,168.