After last week’s field goal loss to the Rabbitohs, the Panthers were hungry for a win at Pepper Stadium on Easter Sunday, and they came away hungrier after a dispiriting 28-2 loss to the Sharks. If last weekend’s clash with the Storm at AAMI Park was the grand final rematch, then the follow-up against Penrith felt closer to Cronulla’s actual grand final performance, right down to Andrew Fifita’s try in the dying minutes of the game, his first since last October.
On paper, it didn’t seem poised to be that much of an unequal contest, despite the fact that the Panthers haven’t quite managed to make good on their promise in 2017. Having lost their last two encounters, the home game at Pepper was critical to renewing their sense of being genuine finals contenders. Of course, finals footy is still a long way off, but nevertheless the Panthers will be wanting to have a good long look at their defensive strategy ahead of next week’s clash against Parramatta in order to build a sense of momentum for the rest of the season.
Key to their defeat was the dexterity and judgment of the Cronulla halves, with a perfectly weighted grubber from Chad Townsend setting up James Maloney for the first try of the afternoon. From then on, the Sharks exhibited a powerful kicking game, while Nathan Cleary, by contrast, didn’t get much of a chance to showcase the wobbling, floating bombs that can make his opponents so debilitated under the high ball.
As a result, the Sharks dominated the goal line-drop outs, especially in the first half of the second stanza, as Waqa Blake seemed to be caught in the in-goal area every couple of minutes. With virtually all the field position across the second half, the power and conviction of the Cronulla defence made it feel as if the Panthers had lost any field position they could manage to glean before they’d even got there. A set around the 68-minute mark said it all, as the Sharks wrapped up and shut down every Penrith move, in what had been the most dangerous set from the Panthers since the half-time siren.
Special mention has to go to Wade Graham, who was as merciless in targeting the Panthers as he had been in targeting Cooper Cronk against the Storm the previous week. Playing a critical role (along with Ricky Leutele) in setting up Sosaia Feki’s second try at the thirty-seven minute mark, he personified the Sharks’ mission to demystify the Penrith wingers, resulting in a particularly quiet night from Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and Tyrone Peachey, despite some impressive aggression and force earlier in the game.
The definitive moment probably came an hour in, as Cronulla demonstrated the combination of agility and gutsiness that allowed them to turn off the porch light last year. Following on from a brilliant intercept from Ricky Leutele that gifted the Sharks with field position once again, Paul Gallen ploughed headfirst through Matt Moylan to land a try right by the posts, setting up James Maloney for one of the easiest conversions of the night.
Only a solitary penalty goal from Nathan Cleary eight minutes in allowed the Panthers to put points on the board at all, with the Mountain Men continually disarmed by the speed of the Cronulla attack and determination of the Cronulla defence. No team in the NRL seems to be quite so canny at targeting and containing their opponents’ weaknesses as the Sharks at the moment, to the point where the game felt like a veritable catalogue of things Bryce Cartwright might have done differently, with Carty’s absence feeling more palpable and critical than during any of the Panthers’ recent clashes without him.
In the end the absence of Cartwright – or even of Josh Mansour – can’t explain this decline in form, nor the abysmal performance at Pepper on Easter Sunday. After all, the Sharks were also experimenting somewhat with Jayden Brailey putting in a full eighty minutes at hooker, and yet still managed to deliver the goods. Whether it’s the recent issues around Matt Moylan, the reshuffling of the forward pack, or the burden of last season’s hype, something isn’t clicking at Penrith at the moment, and the Panthers are going to be desperate to sort it out before they take on the Eels next week at ANZ.