After demolishing the Warriors, Penrith are set to get even stronger in their quest for a third straight NRL title with head coach Ivan Cleary revealing Jarome Luai is firming to make a return from injury.
Luai, the talismanic five-eighth, will get an extra week to recover from his dislocated shoulder after the Panthers punished the Warriors in a 32-6 qualifying final victory at BlueBet Stadium on Saturday.
Halfback Nathan Cleary and back-up No. 6 Jack Cogger showed encouraging signs but it was Penrith’s defence which managed to grind the Kiwi outfit into the ground in missing just 14 tackles to help send the Panthers into a fourth straight preliminary final.
“It’s gone pretty well (with Cleary and Cogger) and they’ve got a good relationship and they understand each other pretty well,” the coach said.
“The week off is perfect for Jarome and Izack (Tago).
“He (Luai) would 100 per cent play, but we’ve got to work out if he can function in a game of that intensity but so far, so good.”
While Penrith rest their troops, the Warriors now need to go the long way round if they are to make a fairytale grand final appearance.
They will head back to Auckland before hosting a do-or-die semi-final against the winner of Sunday’s elimination final between Newcastle and Canberra.
Without Shaun Johnson they failed to challenge Penrith, and the last-tackle options provided by the maverick No.7 were badly missed as he watched on from the stands nursing his injured calf.
Coach Andrew Webster said Johnson would be fit for next week’s finals clash even if the halfback’s left leg will be the focus of fevered scrutiny.
Without their key man, the Warriors were out of sorts from the off and two early errors allowed Brian To’o and Liam Martin to put Penrith 12-0 up after 20 minutes.
“We dropped balls in the backfield, we started offloading and flicking in our own end and we started doing things to make that pressure that they created even stronger,” Webster said.
“We didn’t give ourselves a chance to fight. They are a good side but we didn’t give ourselves an opportunity.”
Stand-in playmaker Dylan Walker had an afternoon to forget and while he has been one of the Warriors’ best performers off the bench this year, he missed nine tackles and registered two errors.
He and five-eighth Te Maire Martin struggled to test the Panthers back three of To’o, Sunia Turuva and Dylan Edwards, all of whom clocked up north of 120 metres with the ball in hand.
Adding to the Warriors’ woes will be judiciary concerns over captain Tohu Harris, who was placed on report by referee Adam Gee for a crusher tackle.
Plenty of Kiwis made the trip to Sydney’s west but even if the Warriors’ revival and first finals appearance in five years had been the feel-good story of the season, the Penrith machine has no room for sentiment.
Sunia Turuva’s try extended the Panthers’ lead late in the first half with a Nathan Cleary penalty pushing the home side out to a 20-0 advantage at the break.
Wayde Egan hit back for the Warriors after the break but it was to prove nothing more than a consolation with Turuva and Cleary scoring late to wrap up a comfortable victory.