NZ Warriors must take the scenic route to the NRL Grand Final, after slumping to a 32-6 defeat against two-time defending champions Penrith Panthers in their first-round playoff showdown at BlueBet Stadium.
Rocked by the withdrawal of injured star Shaun Johnson, the Auckland-based side were no match for the minor premiers, who were clinical in their dismantling of a team making their first postseason appearance in five years.
After securing a top-four position during the regular season, the Warriors have another playoff life and will now host their second-chance fixture against either Newcastle Knights or Canberra Raiders next weekend.
An afternoon kickoff provided perfect conditions for running rugby league, but Warriors winger Marcelo Montoya made the first error of the game, spilling a high kick from Nathan Cleary. Penrith made them pay immediately, with winger Brian To'o stretching out to score on the next set.
Promoted into the halves to replace Johnson, Dylan Walker seemed to respond with a try at the other end, but the four-pointer was disallowed for obstruction in the build-up.
Penrith fullback Dylan Edwards ran from dummy half deep inside his own half, but ran away from his support - centre Stephen Crichton looming inside - and lost the ball in a despairing tackle from Te Maire Martin.
The champions could not be denied long and were given another opportunity, when Warriors centre Rocco Berry dropped a pass inside his own 10 and, despite losing a boot in the process, Cleary put second-rower Liam Martin through a gap to score.
Penrith took complete control of the contest, when quick hands created room for winger Sunia Turuva's dash to the corner, and the Warriors were fighting for their survival.
In Johnson's absence, their kicking game lacked the accuracy required to test their opponents at the start of each defensive set. Statistically, the veteran playmaker has been the competition's best in this regard, leading in the number of kicks and kicking metres.
The Panthers were gifted another chance, when the Warrior defence forced a loose carry, but second-rower Jackson Ford couldn't gather cleanly on his own 20. Fullback Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad defused a dangerous kick from Turuva and his teammates somehow snuffed out the next-set threat.
Cleary added a penalty on halftime to put his side 20-0 up at the break and the Warriors were lucky to survive, when forward Jazz Tevaga spilled the ball from the second-half kickoff and Turuva was barely dragged into touch short of the corner flag.
A promising Warriors attack fizzled out, when hooker Wayde Egan spilled a dummy-half pass forward and seconds later, he picked up a worrying neck injury, but stayed on the field.
Another ended, when Montoya was given no room to move down the left sideline and was bundled into touch.
They finally broke their duck, when front-rower Mitch Barnett offloaded on halfway, winger Dallin Watene-Zelezniak dashed down the right touchline and lobbed a pass infield, where Egan evaded the last defender to score.
That try brought the Warriors fans back into the game and gave their team fresh hope, but the comeback was shortlived. When a Cleary kick was bobbled in midfield, Penrith were given the benefit of the doubt and Cleary brilliantly delayed a pass to give Turuva another easy run to the corner for his second.
Another Warriors chance went begging, when Martin floated a pass off Walker's fingertips.
Cleary put the icing on the cake, when he ran right, dummy twice and slicing between centre Adam Pompey and Montoya for a try of his own.
The Warriors had one more hopeful attack in them, but were too lateral and ran Watene-Zelezniak into touch a few metres out.
"Definitely a tough day," reflected captain Tohu Harris. "They showed us what finals footy is all about.
"We didn't do a good enough job of playing how we've played all year. We tried to do things we haven't done all year, and they have too much qualify to try and make things up on the day.
"We've got to get back to sticking to what we know how to do and what's worked for us all year.
"We've got learn how to withstand that pressure - that's what playing in September is all about."
Penrith Panthers 32 (Turuva 2, To'o, Martin & Cleary tries; Cleary 5 conversions & penalty) NZ Warriors 6 (Egan try; Pompey conversion)