The Warriors moved into the NRL top four and within sight of a home final after overcoming a dogged Penrith 26-12 at Centrebet Stadium on Saturday night.
Riding the wave of momentum which had yielded five wins from their last six starts, the Warriors leapt above North Queensland and St George Illawarra to move into the box seat for hosting rights in the first week of the finals.
They hold their destiny in their own hands as they close the season with games against the Dragons and Cowboys, fullback Kevin Locke the star of the show with several brilliant touches.
The Panthers were unable to give departing duo Trent Waterhouse and Petero Civoniceva a grand farewell in their last home game for the club, but they did manage to make a contest of it recovering from 16-0 down at halftime.
Waterhouse twice went close to scoring during an opening period which Penrith dominated, the Warriors emerging from their slumber when Locke picked up a loose ball from a scrum win near his own line to send Shaun Johnson on a 90 metre run for a 4-0 lead.
Having given away 2000 tickets to the game as part of his punishment for turning up to training under the influence of alcohol, it appeared Jennings was still feeling charitable in gifting the Warriors a second three minutes later.
In his first crack at the fullback position, Jennings coughed up the ball as he was pummelled back into his own in-goal, Ben Matulino picking up the lose ball for the easiest of tries.
A desperate Adrian Purtell held Locke over the line just before the break but the Warriors fullback was finished – a Brad Tighe chip kick as the siren sounded turning to disaster when Locke returned it untouched for a 16-0 lead.
Locke continued to be a thorn in Penrith’s side when he chased down a runaway Jennings shortly after the restart, but David Simmons finally got the Panthers on the board two tackles later.
Sensing a comeback the Warriors opted to take the two points via a penalty goal – their fears vindicated when Brad Tighe brushed off a flimsy Simon Mannering effort to run 80 metres for an 18-10 scoreline.
The Warriors were rattled as they fumbled the ball inside their own 20 metres zone on three straight sets, and many in the 11,644-strong crowd were left miffed when the home side released the pressure valve by reducing the deficit to six points with a simple penalty attempt.
Penrith’s window of opportunity closed as the Warriors, on the back of a James Maloney 40-20 again went out by eight when the Panthers were ruled offside on their own goaline, Manu Vatuvei sealing the win with a try four minutes from time.
Warriors coach Ivan Cleary, who admitted it was a touch surreal coaching at the place he will call home for the next three years, said his side had it all to play for over the next fortnight.
“It’s sort of come out of nowhere really,” Cleary said of moving into the top four.
“I try not to worry too much about where we end up.
“After a long season you end up where you deserve – we’ve got two really big games to come.”
Panthers coach Steve Georgallis said it was a tough way for the likes of Civoniceva, Waterhouse, Matthew Bell and Adrian Purtell to bow out at home.
“It’s just really disappointing for the players, they put so much effort into the game – first half there was three tries against the run of play,” Georgallis said.
“Their contribution is what’s left behind – they’re great blokes – it’s just disappointing that we couldn’t get a win for them today.”