Warriors captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck will be racing the clock for New Zealand’s first home Test against Australia in four years on October 13 after suffering a knee injury as his side bowed out of the finals with a 27-12 loss to Penrith at ANZ Stadium on Saturday night.
Tuivasa-Sheck had to be assisted from the field by two Warriors trainers in the 27th minute after injuring his knee in a collision with Panthers hooker Sione Katoa while attempting to run the ball out of his own end.
The loss of the superstar fullback, who is among the favourites for the 2018 Dally M Medal, was a massive blow for the Warriors and they never recovered in what was a disappointing end to Simon Mannering’s 301-match career.
After leading 12-2 when the Telstra Premiership’s leading tryscorer David Fusitu’a crossed for his 23rd try of the season in the 14th minute to equal Francis Meli’s 15-year-old club record, the Warriors attack fell apart without Tuivasa-Sheck, while some of the decision-making was questionable.
"Losing a player with the quality of Roger does have a bit of an impact," Warriors coach Stephen Kearney said. "I guess when Roger did come off there was a bit of a lull in our energy, so that didn't help. We just didn't find any momentum in that second half."
The initial diagnosis was that Tuivasa-Sheck had suffered medial ligament damage in his left knee and Warriors officials were hopeful he may have still been able to play a role in the play-offs if they had overcome the Panthers.
However, the Warriors first finals campaign since 2011 ended in frustrating circumstances after the promise showed by the team during a season in which they managed 15 wins to finish on 32 points, equal with Penrith, Brisbane and St George Illawarra. Only points differential separated the four sides.
Match Highlights: Panthers v Warriors – Finals Week 1, 2018
"It is a pretty disappointed dressing room because I think we all see that we didn't put our best performance out there but we have made some progress this year, there is no doubt about that," Kearney said.
"We are really determined to make sure that we improve and we have got to be better. I thought there was definitely some learnings for some of our guys who hadn't played finals footy."
Errors proved costly, as did the decision to persist with short goal line dropouts and kick offs without success, which enabled the Panthers to mount sustained pressure on the Warriors try line in the second half.
At one stage, the Warriors were forced to defend six repeat sets before Panthers winger Christian Crichton scored in the 52nd minute to put his side ahead 24-12, and they had to make 347 tackles compared to 287 by Penrith – the equivalent of 10 more sets of six.
"Our try line defence has been pretty good for most of the year so we feel that if we are handing it to them 10 metres out or we get an opportunity to get the ball back we feel that is a big enough risk to take," Kearney said.
"I think we had four sets on our try line in the second half before the Panthers came up with some points."
Hooker Issac Luke also put the ball out on the full from the kick-off after Tyrone Peachey ’s first try for the Panthers in the 24th minute.
Peachey scored his second try just five minutes later during the first set of tackles after the Warriors had been forced into a backline reshuffle following the loss of Tuivasa-Sheck, which featured Peta Hiku moving to fullback and Gerard Beale coming off the bench to replace him in the centres.
After trailing 18-12 at half-time, the Warriors only conceded one try in the second term but they never really threatened Penrith in attack without their inspirational skipper.
Tuivasa-Sheck did not play for New Zealand in the June 23 Test against England at Denver’s Mile High Stadium but he was named last week in an extended Kiwis squad for the Test against the Kangaroos at Mt Smart Stadium and the end-of-season tour to Britain.
The injury was to the same knee Tuivasa-Sheck underwent a reconstruction in 2015 but Warriors officials were confident he had not suffered ACL damage.
"At this stage it looks like it is a medial but we will need to get some scans first thing Monday,"Kearney said.