ROUND 6: Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks v. Penrith Panthers (PointsBet Stadium, 18/4/19)

The Sharks were almost doubled by the Roosters, but it was the Panthers who were desperate to make up for Round 5 when they met in Cronulla on Thursday night for the first game of Round 6. Despite only losing to Gold Coast by a single converted try, the mountain men had put in their worst performance of the season so far at Robina, missing 67 tackles and struggling with ball control from the first minute to the eightieth. With James Tamou as captain, they were even keener to win against their traditional rivals, especially since they haven’t won at Shark Park since 2012.

That said, the Sharks were far from secure as they headed into this match. The spectrum between old guns and young guns was more dramatic than in any other game this year, with William Kennedy making his NRL debut, but Paul Gallen also playing his first game at Shark Park since surpassing Andrew Ettingshausen as most capped Cronulla player. Add to that a spotty start to the season from Shaun Johnson in Cronulla colours, and there was just as much riding on this early match for the Sharks as for the Panthers.

Penrith started strong, with the wind at their back, as Tamou took the first hit-up, and Nathan Cleary followed with a trademark towering bomb, before Josh Mansour handled a Shaun Johnson kick. Cronulla had glimpsed some early position on their first set, when Josh Morris came close to breaking through the line, but the mountain men had contained them pretty successfully, setting the stage for an early avalanche of points from Penrith that would see them escalate to a fourteen-nil scoreline by the time the first quarter was over.

Their early momentum came crashing down, however, when Dallin Watene Zelezniak coughed up the footy at the start of their second set – a flashback to the ball control issues that had plagued them against Gold Coast the week before. To make matters worse, a massive hole opened up in the Penrith defence on the fourth tackle of the subsequent set, only closing just in time to prevent Matt Priorfrom storming through for the first try of the night.

Still, the Sharks managed to execute the first dropout four minutes in, then a repeat set when James Maloney’s final kick was charge down and recovered by Josh Dugan. Fortunately for the mountain men, Dugan followed DWZ with a handling error of his own, and at the end of the next set Penrith got a dropout when Kennedy was trapped on the line. The Sharks chose to go short – only sixteen metres – and for a moment Penrith seemed to have gained possession, only for Wayde Egan to knock on just when they were settling into their most promising attacking sequence so far.

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Bronson Xerri was restless to get out of Cronulla’s end on the first tackle of the next set, but the Panthers did a pretty good job of keeping the Sharks in their place here, wrapping up an Andrew Fifita offload on the fourth before DWZ cleaned up a Johnson high ball on the last. The Panthers got their next big opportunity when Dugan made his second handling error of the night – defied by a difficult bounce from a Cleary kick, he gathered the Steeden and then lost it again while facing his own line, setting up Penrith for a much-needed scrum feed.

They made the most of it too, as Tim Grant smashed over on the first tackle, beside the posts, in his first game of the year. Glimpsing a space in the defence right where Prior had almost scored in the opening minutes, Maloney drew in Briton Nikora, and timed the dummy and pass perfectly to make the most of the hard, strong line that Grant was running to take possession of the Steeden at exactly the right moment. Despite some messy opening minutes, then, the Panthers were six on the board when Cleary added the extras, as Tamou took the first hit-up once again on the restart.

Grant was one of only four Penrith players on the field to have won a match at Shark Park, so it felt a bit like the mountain men were reaching deep into their past to capitalise on this early momentum. Nikora now took out some of his frustration at Maloney’s deception with a dangerous tackle on the restart, before DWZ made a superb one-handed catch off a Cleary pass to set up Egan to almost crash over on the left edge. Cleary added the icing with his most precise kick of the night so far, and while Waqa Blake fumbled it, the Panthers still got a dropout when Prior was trapped in goal.

Once again, the Sharks went short, and also amped up their defence, with Fifita making a big hit on Grant, before a sturdy pack defence held up Isaah Yeo on the right edge. By the time that the Sharks had held up Viliame Kikau on the left edge of the Panthers’ attack, they seemed utterly exhausted, so it was no surprise that the Panthers scored on the last, thanks to a beautiful piece of communication between the halves – a skittering grubber from Maloney that bounced brilliantly for Cleary to score right behind the posts, before converting his own try from in front a second later.

Sixteen minutes into the game, the Panthers’ loss to the Titans seemed like a distant memory. As Tamou took the first tackle yet again, Penrith were looking better than they have all year, while the Sharks were really starting to struggle. They had their worst moment so far when Sosaia Feki collected the footy after Kennedy had cleaned up a Cleary bomb, and then simply dropped it cold – the first unforced error of the match.

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This was a prime moment for the Panthers to consolidate and pile on another try, but they chose to take the two when Jayden Brailey was pinged for a slow peel. Whether they would have scored was debatable, but this decision marked the start of a decelerating rhythm for Penrith, who were unable to recapitulate the momentum of these last fifteen minutes until the last five minutes of the first half, when Maloney took advantage of the breeze for a beautiful 40/20, slicing the footy with his boot so it brushed the sideline before bouncing back into the field.

Penrith now executed a classic combination, as Cleary received the footy on the left edge of the attack, shaping as if to kick, but instead sending a cut-out pass across Dean Whare’s chest to Mansour waiting for it on the wing. Seeing Sauce crash over brough back memories of his peak performances in 2016 and 2017, so it was a real rhythm-killer when the try was called back due to a minor obstruction from Kikau in backplay. This was worse than Penrith not even having a chance of scoring, and gave Cronulla the advantage for the last few minutes, climaxing with a pair of big runs from Gallen and Braden Hamlin-Uele.

This would probably have led to the first try for the Sharks if Hamlin-Uele hadn’t lost the footy at the critical moment, ending the opening stanza with a 0-14 scoreline. Five minutes into the second half, tempers flared when a head clash between Maloney and Kennedy was followed by a brainsnap from DWZ on the next set. Seizing his opportunity to make the best linebreak of the night so far, DWZ was felled by Townsend, but got his own back on the Cronulla halfback during backplay on the next tackle, giving the ball back to the Sharks just as Mansour was surging ahead.

This was a big change in momentum, and the Sharks accordingly grew more adventurous on their next set, with Hamlin-Uele offloading on the ground to Kennedy, before Yeo was pinged for not being square at marker on the last. Once again, Hamlin-Uele opened with a big run, before Brailey collected the footy and popped it over to Nikora to change the direction of attack right on the line, only for Nikora to cough it up a second before he landed on the chalk.

With DWZ’s penalty and Nikora’s fumble, both teams had made errors just when they were glimpsing their next four points. As a result, both teams felt restless for a try, and on the cusp of a try, if they could just consolidate over the next couple of minutes. The Panthers only managed a standard set, but the Sharks started right where they left off, as Kennedy and Dugan went for a pair of high-risk, rapid passes right on their line, resulting in Xerri collecting the footy within the Cronulla forty and running the length of the sideline to score his first NRL try right behind the posts.

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Only Maloney and DWZ came close to catching him, but Maloney tripped and Xerri got on Dallin’s outside – a preview of things to come from one of the most promising young guns in the game at the moment. After suffering four tries in eight minutes from the Roosters after the break last week, it was good for the Sharks to start the second stanza with an assertive effort. Meanwhile, the Panthers got a big blow when Dean Whare was taken off the park with a Grade 2 hamstring injury, forcing them to reshuffle their backline just when they needed to be congealing.

Both teams now went set for set for a few minutes, continuing the game trend of stuggling under the high ball – or seeming unwilling to catch the high ball on the full. There was a brief pause when Nikora was examined for a possible HIA, and a big moment for the crowd when Martin downed Xerri, but the next turning-point didn’t come until Sione Katoa coughed up the footy, and Cleary followed with a slow peel a tackle later. While the Sharks didn’t score on this set, this pair of mistakes felt like the transition to the more Cronulla-dominated part of the game.

A Jack Williams run said it all, requiring about half of the Penrith defence to hold him up in front of the posts on the last tackle, but the mountain men got one last chance when Scott Sorensen made a handling error during his first contact with the footy. Cleary responded with an enormous pass – halfway across the field – to Maloney, who followed with a cut-out effort to Kikau, who didn’t manage to score then and there on the left wing, but got the Sharks anxious enough for Dugan to make an error and gift the visitors six again.

Cleary now repeated the same play on the right side, sending a long, looping pass out to Blake, who dummied to Malakai Watene Zelezniak for the briefest of moments before dodging around Townsend and getting through Kurt Capewell to slam the Steeden to ground. With Cleary making a spectacular sideline conversion, it felt like the Sharks’ steadily increasing momentum might have been an illusion, but Cronulla now proceeded to draw upon Penrith’s splendid second-half comebacks of late 2018, piling on three converted tries in the final quarter of the match.

The first was a penalty try a couple of minutes later that started with Johnson choosing to run the ball, and then shifting it across to Nikora, who abruptly changed the direction of play to chip at high speed to the left edge, where MWZ pushed Townsend out of the way just as he was landing chest-first on the footy.  In slow motion, there was no doubt that the refs made the right call, making this the fourth penalty try of the year, and the second for Cronulla after Katoa’s four-pointer in the 72nd minute of the Round 1 match against the Knights.

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This penalty try was followed by a trio of errors from RCG, Grant and Mansour, and a penalty from Maloney for crowding, as Cronulla settled into five consecutive sets – the longest sustained period of field position all game. By the end of it all, the Panthers were simply too exhausted to prevent Prior from sending Fifita over the line, nor to stop Dugan scoring on the restart, at the tail end of the tightest right sweep of the game, ended with a classy catch-and-pass from Xerri, whose try assist was almost as good as his try.

The Sharks had now enjoyed the same burst of tryscoring that the Roosters had put on them last week, while the Panthers had missed 45 tackles after 67 against Gold Coast. With only four minutes on the clock, it was a done deal for Penrith, who will be raring for a win when they host the Rabbitohs at Panthers Stadium next Friday night. On the other side of the Steeden, the Sharks couldn’t have asked for a better game to recoup their losses to the Chooks, and they’ll be keen to continue this energy when they travel to Brisbane to play the Broncos on Saturday evening.

About Billy Stevenson (751 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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