Jeff Dickinson-Fox reviews the campaign which saw Melbourne Storm crowned premiers in 2017.
4 days ago
Although the Warriors could not beat Newcastle minus Andrew Johns three weeks ago, subsequent wins over the Broncos, Roosters and Wests Tigers on Saturday night have a cluster of coaches looking over their shoulder at the 2002 runners-up.
Penrith coach John Lang, Melbourne's Craig Bellamy and Newcastle's Michael Hagan concede the Warriors are building momentum at the right time.
Halfback Stacey Jones' troublesome groin injury has put a cloud over the Warriors' chances but Hagan said they were more than a one-man team.
"If you put Stacey to one side they're still very strong.
"Ali Lauiti'iti is now six weeks back, their forward pack seems to be back to its best and guys like Francis Meli and Clinton Toopi are a handful out there.
"They've got some strike power in their team and they're very big and physical," Hagan said.
"Of all the teams we've played in the past month (including the Cowboys, Dragons and Raiders) they're the team we've had the most difficulty defending against for long periods because they throw more at you than most."
Lang, whose team inherited the Warriors' title as minor premiers yesterday, expected the Warriors to prove a handful in the finals.
"They'll come up with basketball passes at their own end and they'll do things that by the book are wrong but they'll often get the right result," Lang said.
"They have size, speed and skill. People criticise them for pushing the ball but that's the way they play, they'll always back themselves."
Melbourne might have beaten the Warriors 14-12 last month in Auckland but Bellamy said it was the most physical confrontation his side had endured all season.
"Everyone knows they're a big team and when they get on a roll they're hard to stop."
Meanwhile, Wests Tigers coach Tim Sheens was cautious about the Warriors' finals prospects, particularly after Jones left the field early on Saturday night.
Warriors coach Daniel Anderson said Jones, back after an injury-enforced layoff, would be right to play the Canterbury Bulldogs next weekend.
Sheens wasn't so sure.
"The main thing about semifinal football is that you get there with your main people healthy," Sheens said.
"The healthiest looking sides are probably Canterbury and Penrith. To a degree, they are probably the favourites because of it."