Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that the Panthera species, a grouping of big cats, has become the arch nemesis of the Warrior. While the Warrior is a brave fighter whose courage lends itself to hand-to-hand combat, the Panther is an elusive creature that hunts mainly under the cover of darkness. Whereas the Warrior prefers to charge head-on towards its rivals, the Panther, despite being arguably more powerful, sits in the shadows and waits for the ideal moment to land that killer strike.
Glimpse at Warrior Nation’s recent history and you’ll find encounters with the Panther that have not been kind. There have been massacres, such as in 2013 when the Warriors suffered their worst defeat of all time, but it has been the late-season clashes that have drawn the most blood, that have caused the most pain. Every year since 2012, the men from Mt Smart have entered a battle with Penrith with their finals hopes on the line, and every year those hopes have been dashed.
Saturday evening looms as yet another iteration of this equally important fixture. For the Kiwi side, after three heartbreaking golden point losses from their last four games, the situation has almost reached the dreaded ‘must-win’ stage. And while the players remain upbeat and determined to prove that this Warriors outfit is different to previous years, there’s no doubt that the fans need a boost before that sinking feeling takes hold once again. Win and the march to the playoffs continues. For the optimists among us, with Brisbane starting to wobble, a win against the Panthers even keeps the home-final dream alive. But lose to Penrith — a direct rival for a playoff spot —and the Warriors will find themselves in a deep hole, a dark chasm of depression that might be impossible to escape.
In team news, reports suggest both Albert Vete and Bodene Thompson are likely to return from injury, a huge boost when you consider how well both players were performing before their layoff. Vete, in particular, has made great strides this year, and to me stands out as the best of an impressive crop of young forwards. Manu Vatuvei, however, is in doubt, which could see David Fusitu’a move to the wing and Blake Ayshford back in the centres. So in other words, expect changes to the team named on Tuesday, and keep an eye on late mail leading up to kick off. Whatever happens, it appears Coach McFadden has finally decided that he’ll get his best 17 players on the field for the longest possible time, regardless of how all the pieces fit together.
It’s squeaky-bum time, and the nerves will be at extreme levels from mid-afternoon. I’m not quite sure how I’ll get through the match without passing out. The stakes are the highest they’ve been all season, and with all the good things this Warriors side has done lately, it feels like an injustice that they find themselves under such pressure. Nonetheless, this is a game where nothing else matters but the two competition points, and the men from Mt Smart will need to do everything in their power to ensure they don’t walk off that field without them.
New Zealand Warriors v Penrith Panthers, Mount Smart Stadium, Saturday July 30
Curtain-raiser (Akarana v Counties Manukau women’s): 12:40pm local
NYC (Warriors v Panthers): 2:40pm local
NRL kick off: 5pm local
Warriors edge Penrith in a tight one at Mt Smart in 2014 — will history repeat?
Warriors: 1. Tuimoala Lolohea 2. Ken Maumalo 3. David Fusitua 4. Solomone Kata 5. Manu Vatuvei 6. Thomas Leuluai 7. Shaun Johnson 8. Jacob Lillyman 9. Issac Luke 10. Ben Matulino 11. Bunty Afoa 12. Ryan Hoffman 13. Simon Mannering. Interchange: 14. Jazz Tevaga 15. Sam Lisone 16. James Gavet 17. Blake Ayshford
Panthers: 1 Matthew Moylan 2 Joshua Mansour 3 Waqa Blake 4 Tyrone Peachey 5 Dallin Watene-Zelezniak 6 Bryce Cartwright 7 Nathan Cleary 8 Leilani Latu 9 Peter Wallace 10 Suaia Matagi 11 Isaah Yeo 12 James Fisher 13 Trent Merrin. Interchange: 14 Moses Leota 15 Sitaleki Akauola 16 Christopher Grevsmuhl 17 Zac Hardaker 20 Andrew Saunders 21 Viliame Kikau