Warriors coach Stephen Kearney is jabbing the air with his finger.

He has a stare that could break a rock and he's not happy.

"How much does tonight mean to you?," he asks his team. "How much? You tell me?"

Some players don't meet Kearney's gaze, but a few answers come back; 'heaps', 'everything', 'a lot'.


"A lot?," asks Kearney. "F**king oath it does. So what are we prepared to do for it?"

We are inside the Warriors dressing room at Mt Smart, where the home side trail the Panthers 18-12 at halftime. Not only is this a must-win game, but also the farewell for legendary Warrior Manu Vatuvei.


Almost four hours earlier game night preparations began with a football staff meeting at Ellerslie Racecourse, shifted from Sky City due to concerns over Auckland's Friday traffic.

As the evening's timetable is discussed, and even brief plans for the impending trip to Townsville, players begin to arrive.

Youngsters Bunty Afoa and Ata Hingano are first, and after greeting everyone, chat in the corner.

Others filter in. Ken Maumalo and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck stretch on yoga mats, Shaun Johnson talks with Kearney about Penrith's attack and props Sam Lisone, Jacob Lillyman and Ben Matulino sip coffee together. There's a mood of mateship in the air.

The impressive spread of pre-match snacks- salad, chicken skewers, bacon and egg cases, boiled eggs and smoothies - lay almost untouched, though the tea and coffee machines are popular.

The players are put through warmup exercises (lunges, yoga poses and stretching), before Kearney takes centre stage. He touches on kick returns and defensive awareness and also reminds the team to be patient in attack, especially inside the opposition 20m zone.

"If we have to hand the ball over in the cage, then there we go - 95 metres to go. We'll take that. "

Vatuvei's farewell has overshadowed the build-up, but the "Beast" is only mentioned at the end of Kearney's speech.

"Run hard, like our mate, he only knew one way to play. One way to run. Run hard. That's how you bloody honour him."

As the team file off, Kearney pulls the props aside.

"It's about detail; first contact, three men in, and doing that for 80 minutes. We set the tone."


The bus journey is silent, as players contemplate their roles. A few supporters are there to meet the team on arrival - "That's the way boys", shouts one fan - and Vatuvei greets each player with a hug.

The dressing room area is a hive of activity.

Players are getting strapped, or massages. Matulino and James Gavet sit outside on wrestle mats, listening to head phones.

Kieran Foran chats to assistant coach Andrew McFadden while Kearney gathers his thoughts.

"I still get anxious around this time," says Kearney to a colleague. "And I wonder about that, but then I remember Wayne [Bennett] still gets nervous ... after all these years."

Tuivasa-Sheck returns from the coin toss, to inform his team they are receiving.

"Let's get into them from the start," says Luke. "Big start boys."


All headphones are off, and strapping, hydration and massages complete as players return to their allocated seats.

Some write messages on wrist tape, others chat quietly. Simon Mannering goes through his preparations for the 273rd time, spraying the inside of his boots and tying his laces methodically, before Kearney returns to the room.

"Tonight we don't let up until the final whistle blows. What they want is time, and space. So you take that away from them.

"We have looked at all the technical stuff, but tonight is also about how we get the job done. The energy and spirit that we bring. I can feel it in the room. You don't want to let anyone down tonight. You get your job done. Whatever it takes. "

The players leave for the warm-up, returning 15 minutes later for some final preparations.

David Fusitu'a and Solomone Kata say quick prayers, Matulino and Luke talk through plans while Foran gets help to pull his jersey on.

Johnson talks with Blake Ayshford and Bodene Thompson - "give me space, stay wide" - before the team is called outside. Tuivasa-Sheck, Luke and Mannering give final messages in the huddle before the team run out.

8:50pm Halftime Penrith 18-12

The players file back into a quiet dressing room. Some get knocks attended too as the medical staff monitor players, while others sit in silence. The fuel on the table; bananas, kiwifruit, watermelon, nuts, raisins and jelly beans is largely ignored, apart from a few energy shots and cups of Gatorade.

Kearney goes round each player one by one. Some are offered reassurance, others given stern reminders of their task.

The coach then addresses the team.

"Okay, so what do we need to fix. Any ideas?"

Mannering speaks up, pointing out various defensive issues and the lack of physicality.

Kearney agrees, but starts by emphasising completions and being smart in possession.

The coach also talks about the Panther's line speed, encourages the team to "pull the trigger"on attack warns about Penrith's running halves and reminds the team of their targets.

"They are kicking a lot to Ken [Maumalo], but their wingers, they've had nothing. Let's test them out."

The room is silent now, apart from some gulps of water or energy drink, before Kearney poses his question.

"How much does tonight mean to you? How much? You tell me?"

The answers come back.

"It's in our hands now," says Kearney. "How much do we want to do something about this? Don't worry about the scoreboard ... it will tick over as long as we get the process right."

The players nod, as volume and energy fill the room.

"Let's put some cage sets on those guys, because we have done stuff all of those," says Lillyman. "Let's turn the screws on them."

"Don't die wondering boys," offers Foran. "Let's leave nothing out there."

Luke offers some more words while Tuivasa-Sheck stresses a good defensive start to the half.

Full-time Penrith 34 Warriors 22

The Warriors lead midway through the second half but lapse in the final 15 minutes and the Panthers run out comfortable 34-22 winners.

After an extended tribute for Vatuvei, the players face some home truths back in the dressing room.

"We let ourselves down," says Kearney. "We all understood the circumstances of the evening ... but they came and beat us up. We'll go through it on Monday and we'll have to have some honest conversations."