ROUND 9: Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks v. Penrith Panthers (Netstrata Jubilee Stadium, 11/7/20)

The Panthers have already indicated that they’re bringing something special to the table in 2020, but this afternoon’s match against the Sharks was a true watershed match – a 56-24 win that cements this season as a historic moment in Penrith club history. Nathan Cleary and James Tamou were superb in leadership, and Charlie Staines, who was replacing Dean Whare, had one of the greatest NRL debuts of all time, putting down four tries, including the last two of the game..

Braden Hamlin-Uele slipped on the first carry, and the Panthers piled on to make sure the Sharkies didn’t make too much position over the rest of the set, although big Braden got a chance to get more metres on the penultimate play. Dylan Edwards did well with a difficult bounce, and Cronulla showed they could defend just as staunchly, as Townsend drove him back, and onto his back, on tackle three. Nathan Cleary took his first kick from the halfway line, and Josh Dugan caught it at fullback with ease.

The Sharkies didn’t even get halfway through their next tackle count, however, as Nene Macdonald lost the footy, giving Staines his first great run in the NRL – up the right edge, where Wade Graham only just got him to ground. Cronulla did well to hold up Liam Martin in the same part of the park, but they couldn’t keep the mountain men out two tackles later. Api Koroisau popped out an early ball, Cleary ran deep into the line, and Edwards got a one-handed offloaded away to sent Naden over the chalk.

Cleary added the extras just as easily, and the Panthers were more than a point per minute with less than five minutes on the clock. James Tamou had fed the footy from Koroisau to Cleary, and continued to lead with a strong carry up the middle on the restart, getting Martin the position and momentum to force the first ruck error of the afternoon, from Hamlin-Uele. Once again, Martin glimpsed some space up the right edge, and the Sharks only just survived, as he botched the pass at the last minute.

It was critical that Cronulla get to the end of their second set, and Aaron Woods did well to keep the Steeden tucked under his arm as a swathe of Panthers lifted him just to the horizontal. Johnson came up with exactly the right kick – a soaring bomb that stopped right on the line for Staines, forcing Penrith to work it back from their own end for the first time. Johnson was just as staunch in attack, coming in for a huge tackle on Mansour that disoriented the cult winger into a fumbled play-the ball on carry two.

The Sharks now had their first real attacking chance, but Johnson didn’t deliver the third time around, shooting out a wide ball to Sione Katoa that was called forward before his winger could free himself from Mansour’s grasp. The symmetry of this sequence – Mansour conceding an error, Mansour tackling at the end of an error – seemed to reset the game for Penrith, who got back up the other end of the field when Hamlin-Uele conceded the first penalty of the night, for being offside within ten.

Jesse Ramien was offside at the end of the next set, when he was forced to play at a Cleary chip after Dugan knocked it back in goal. Penrith now had a full set inside the ten, although they only had to put in a couple of short-range plays before Martin ran through a massive hole on the right, thanks to a simple piece of deception from Koroisau – looking left but shifting right, where Martin crossed over untouched, Graham waving hands in the breeze, before Cleary added his second conversion kick.

The Sharks huddled in conference as the Steeden sailed through the posts, and got their next chance two tackles into the restart, when Tamou knocked the play-the-ball forward under considerable pressure from Townsend. He wasn’t happy with the decision, which became even harder to swallow when Bryson Goodwin twisted through four players on the left. For a moment, it looked like four tries in four games for the ex-Rabbitoh, but the replay clearly showed he’d spilled it on at the last minute.

Graham made up for letting Martin through by barging into him for the toughest hit of the night, although it didn’t even dent the Panthers’ momentum. Viliame Kikau burned up the left edge and got an offload away to Stephen Crichton, and Ramien infringed the ruck to concede six more tackles, only for Macdonald to follow Graham, and get some joy, by knocking down an Edwards pass. Now it was the Sharkies’ turn to get six again, as Dugan ran like a forward up the middle, clearing up space for Hamlin-Uele.

Yet the big prop knocked on, and the Panthers got six again a second later, before the big men took a couple of big tackles to get them back in striking range again. They got another six, off Graham, and then another, off Macdonald, and scored their third try off two big plays – a hard run from Isaah Yeo, who burned up from the twenty and almost put it down beneath the crossbars, and then a superb left sweep that ended with a gymnastic left-hand putdown from Crichton just before he tumbled into touch.

This was a beautiful setup from the halves – Cleary ran into the line and shifted it across to Luai, who withstood a cluster of Penrith defenders to throw it two-handed, basketball style, over to Crichton on the wing. The Panthers had showcased a similar play earlier in this bout of field position, when Tamou had twisted, spun and offloaded in front of the posts, setting up James Fisher-Harris for a NBA-style pass back to the Penrith pack. Meanwhile, Cleary missed his first sideline kick, keeping them to 16.

Moses Leota joined the park for the restart, and made an impact immediately, taking the first carry to clear up space for Fish, and then Martin, to tire out the Penrith defenders, tempting Woodsy into a high tackle on Yeo on play four. Fish took another staunch run to begin this restart on the restart, and Kikau nearly crossed over in the right corner, before Graham played at Cleary’s kick, gifting the mountain men yet another set on the Cronulla line – and their fourth try at the end of the following set.

Cleary directed the play to the right, shifting the Steeden so rapidly that the Sharkies simply couldn’t cover Staines when he collected an Edwards assist on the chest to cross over for his first NRL try. Crichton now had a shot at the sideline conversion, although he didn’t do any better than Cleary, shanking it a good twenty metres out past the left post. Staines stayed in the spotlight on the restart too, breaking into space on the right edge and then returning the favour to Edwards with a bullet pass to put him over.

This was now the most points that Penrith had scored in the first half of a game since 2016, putting them at 26 when Crichton converted from right in front. Staines had seemed to grow exponentially as a footy player in two sets, starting off by taking an assist from his fullback, and then assisting his fullback, as Cronulla slipped out of the eight on the live ladder. It was beginning to feel like this game was all Penrith restarts, so it almost seemed like a victory for the Sharkies when they survived the next one.

Johnson now stepped up, building off a restart and ruck error from Luai to drive the Steeden deep into the right corner, where Mansour was forced to smash it into touch for the first dropout of the afternoon. Ramien actually got there first, but Sauce managed to reach out his right hand and ricochet the Steeden over the line – a foretaste of how dexterously the Panthers would deal with this repeat set, despite a deft offload from Fifita on the very first carry, and two successive calls of six again.

Siosifa Talakai anchored the attack with a couple of big runs at the line, and Townsend tried to repeat Johnson’s dropout at the line, but this time Mansour did even better in the contest with Ramien, forcing him to tap the footy into touch first. The Sharks challenged the decision, and at first the replay seemed to ratify their perspective, but the call went Penrith’s way. Kikau got them rolling with a gutsy offload back to Luai, and Cleary ended with his highest bomb in a while, although Dugan was safe under it.

The Sharks got a chance when Tamou was pinged for ripping the footy out of Toby Rudolf’s grasp as he tried to offload – another marginal call for the Penrith captain. They gave the ball back almost immediately, though, with a left sweep that ended with a mistimed pass from Dugan that bounced over the sideline before Macdonald had any chance of collecting it. Yet the Panthers now had their own unsuccessful challenge, as Mansour clamoured to Tamou that Johnson had forced him to play the footy sideways.

Neither team had any challenges remaining, with five minutes before half time, as the Sharks packed the scrum and went searching for their first try. Talakai had another monster run on the second play, spending a good couple of seconds reaching his right arm out of a combined tackle from Leota, Edwards and Koroisau right under the posts. This turned out to be the critical platform, since on the next play Johnson took advantage of a Kikau slip to sent Briton Nikora across more or less untouched.

Johnson was now two ahead of Luke Keary for most try assists in 2020, and got the deficit down to 20 after converting from right in front. If they scored on the restart, or before the break, the Sharks would at least have some foothold in the second stanza – and that’s just what they did, as Talakai came up with another sterling run, this time up the middle, fending off Naden and making a good ten or twelve post-contact metres after Martin got to him. With a forward pass from Koroisau, the Sharkies were set.

With one minute on the clock, Fifita drove deep into the right edge, the Sharks got a restart, and Ramien had a heroic encounter with Kikau just beside the posts, clearing up space for Blayke Brailey to surge over out of dummy half. Full credit to Blake to, who burrowed into Luai, and Koroisai, before getting his hand free to plant the footy down, as Edwards came in to try and clean up the play. It was such a David-and-Goliath effort that a Cronulla comeback now felt possible, especially once Johnson converted.

John Morris had instructed the Sharks about the importance of mental toughness during the half-time address of last week’s game against the Titans. They seemed to have imbibed some of that mental toughness here, despite Fifita being ruled out with a right hamstring injury, holding their own against the Panthers for the first couple of minutes. Things shifted pretty quickly after that, though, as Talakai was taken to the sheds for an HIA, forcing the hosts to reshuffle again with two big men off the park.

The Sharkies got through one more set, but Johnson was forced to kick from his own end, and only booted it thirty-five metres, giving the Panthers six tackles in Cronulla territory. Hunt was pinged for a crusher tackle on Spencer Leniu, Tamou and Martin took a couple of leisurely runs up the middle, and Tamou came in for a second carry, before Kikau brought the footy right to the line. Penrith barely seemed out of second gear when Cleary chipped to the right, where Edwards and Staines combined again.

This was an even more relaxed linkup, as Naden knocked it back, Edwards scooped it up, and Staines crossed over untouched, putting the ball down just as Macdonald arrived. He was having a dream debut, as the Forbes contingent cheered him on, ten metres behind where he’d scored both tries. Cleary’s third conversion of the night had flared up some of his right ankle issues, but he took on kicking duties again here, ricocheting the footy off the right post to keep the Panthers to an 18-point lead.

Leniu was raring to break through the line on the restart, and Yeo followed in his footsteps with a staunch carry up the middle, before Leniu continued with seven post-carry metres on the second last play. This time the Sharks survived the restart, and got six again off a ruck error from Tamou, but couldn’t really shape a convincing attack. The Panthers struggled to make metres too, as the match settled into a mini-lull, with the Sharks failing to do much with another six again next time they had ball in hand.

Johnson’s next kick slid over the sideline, on the third tackle, while Martin continued to add to his metre tally up the middle, albeit without any real gain on this set either. All in all, this was the most evenly paced part of the match, as well as the most conservative, until Tamou got ten in the bin for not being square at marker. He’d had a few tough calls this afternoon, and this was the toughest. With only one Penrith try in the last fourteen minutes, this was also the critical comeback moment for Cronulla.

Townsend had a chance to run the ball at the end of next set, with Macdonald and Dugan unmarked on his outside, but instead he kicked it too far, allowing the Panthers to wind down the clock as their captain waited on the sideline. They got six again off a Graham ruck error, and were five metres out by the third tackle, when Billy Burns absorbed a high shot from Woods, came to ground a metre away from the chalk, but still managed to keep his ball-playing arm off the turf, and stretch out to score.

It was a good afternoon for the Western Rams, with Burns now representing Parkes  to put the Panthers at 36-12 once Cleary added the extras. Johnson risked a short dropoff, and it paid off, as Edwards knocked on, and Tyrone May conceded an offside penalty, although the Sharks got a shock when Graham shot the ball straight past Townsend to the left edge, forcing Macdonald to really scramble to tap it back with one hand. They did better with the left sweep, though, putting Ramien over for another four points.

The play started with Hunt barging into the line, giving his men time to shape on the left edge, where Dugan fed an early ball to Ramien, who surged back inside, bumped off a couple of defenders, and came to ground beneath Yeo beside the posts. It had been paramount that Cronulla scored with Tamou off the park, if only to carry some momentum into next week’s game against the Warriors, although they didn’t get much of a restart here, since Macdonald was held to have knocked on straight off the kickoff.

This was a pretty rough call for Nene, but the Sharks got some joy a second later, when Crichton spilled the footy forward out of the scrum – the lowest point of the afternoon for Penrith, and the fastest changeover period for both teams. Townsend chipped on the fourth, and Macdonald leaped up to collect it, but the ball was too high for him to put down himself, since by the time he’d got to ground the Panthers had surged in to defend it. Cronulla headed to the other side of the park, but Penrith cleaned them up.

Tamou returned to the field at the start of the next Sharks set, as Woods followed Crichton by flipping the footy forward. This felt like the last straw for the Panthers, especially since Edwards broke through the line, and seemed to fend off the entire Cronulla forward pack, coming to ground just short of the chalk, and tempting a sin bin from Woodsy, who came slightly off his line to prevent Burns taking advantage of a quick play-the-ball, but seemed to be well within his rights when the replay unfolded.

It had been a bad set for the big personality prop, and things got worse for the Sharks when Dugan followed him by popping the ball forward at the start of the next set. Interestingly, both teams had roughly the same completion rate – 77% to Penrith, 72% to Cronulla – but the Panthers were doing much more when they did complete. Naden burst into space on tackle two of the next set, and the mountain men elasticized and expanded, until their footy field seemed to be twice as big as that of the Sharkies.

Naden played the ball leisurely, and a pair of huge passes from Staines and Cleary took us back to the other side of the park, where Crichton got on the outside and then the inside of Katoa to score. It was one of those sequences that captured the sheer flow and confidence of Penrith in 2020, since the players seemed to be flying along with the footy, so fluidly and expansively did they move to get this most effortless try of the game into place. Cleary added the conversion, and they were 44-18 with 11 to go.

A moment later, Macdonald made up for his opening miss in the most spectacular way, and with the only real try option left to the Sharkies at this point – an intercept, as he scooped up an offload on the ground from Kikau, got the footy under his right arm, and burned up the right sideline to score the second try of the afternoon for a twelve-man team. Johnson added the extras quickly fom right in front, narrowing the deficit to twenty, as Cronulla got stuck in to secure a more respectable defeat margin.

They executed a decent restart, but the Panthers rebounced on their next set, as Naden did well to avoid a strip or loose carry on the third, Mansour made five post-contact metres on the fourth, and Crichton took over kicking duties on the left sideline on the last, trapping Townsend behind the chalk with a well-timed chip as Cleary shifted to the chase. Johnson went short with the dropout, and Ramien knocked it on, gifting the Panthers a scrum to consolidate this late period of field position.

Fish dragged three defenders towards the left post, Leota followed in his footsteps, and May shaped to start a right switch, only to opt for a harbour bridge ball that landed straight on the chest of Staines, who smashed over untouched for a hat trick on debut – the first NRL player to do so since Dylan Farrell in Round 22 2010. Cleary converted from the sideline, with a kick that was every bit as wide and deft as May’s assist, bringing the mountain men to a half century with five minutes left.

Crichton nearly broke through the left edge at the end of the restart, and while Dugan caught Cleary’s kick on the full, the Panthers only had to wait another set to score their final try. This time Crichton did break through the line, opening up space for Cleary to boot an enormous ball out to Staines, who initially looked set to put down a fourth ty then and there, only for Goodwin to clean it up just in time for the final dropout of the game – although Staines got the last laugh three tackles later.

Leota and Luai made metres up the middle and left side respectively, and Cleary drifted across the face of the ruck, following May by abruptly changing tack to start a rapid right sweep that ended with a no-look flick pass from Naden out to the debutant. Staines collected it and trampled over Goodwin to put down the last four point of the night – the only player in NRL history, along with Jordan Atkins, to have achieved this.

It was a heroic end to a heroic game – a game that cemented the historic rebuild and resurgence that has brought the 2020 Panthers close to the greatness of their dynasty in the early 1990s. All they need to do, then, is continue this flow when they take on the Cowboys at Penrith next week, while, on the other side of the Steeden, the Sharkies will be looking for a big one over New Zealand to make up for the landslide loss here.

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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