It was first against seventh when the Panthers hosted Cronulla at home on Friday night, looking for their tenth win in a row after scoring first in thirteen consecutive games. Sione Katoa had scored the most tries by a Shark (13) after 14 rounds since Andrew Ettingshausen in 1988 – and, with a win, Penrith could get three points ahead of both Melbourne and Parra, not an unlikely outcome with Shaun Johnson out with a groin injury, and Braydon Trindall starting in the halves for only his second NRL game.
James Tamou took the first tackle, and then the fourth, before preventing Aaron Woods getting an offload away on the Sharkies’ first set, while Matt Moylan caught Trindall’s first kick on the full to get his men seven tackles on their second set. Viliame Kikau did well to contain a late ball from Jarome Luai, Edwards muscled his way up the right side of the park, and Nathan Cleary chipped to the right edge, where Will Kennedy caught it on the full, but not without Jesse Ramien conceding an escorts penalty.
After so much momentum, it felt inevitable when the Panthers scored on the very next set – and who better to do it than Kikau, who received a short ball from Isaah Yeoh and slammed into Trindall, pushing the stand-in halfback three metres back before finally spinning out through Kennedy and Scott Sorensen to slam down the first points. It was a David-and-Goliath effort where Goliath won, bringing the Panthers to a point per minute once Cleary booted through the extras from right in front.
Kikau made fifteen metres up the left edge on the restart, finding space for a Stephen Crichton half-break, before Penrith got the first call of six again off a ruck error from Blayke Brailey. The Sharks got lucky on the last play, though, when Luai’s grubber ricocheted off the left post and straight into Kennedy’s arms, as the Cronulla fullback went to ground to prevent the chasers from dragging him into touch, before a ruck error from Liam Martin and high shot from Yeoh got them their first real field position.
Penrith were pretty confident defending their line though, barely breaking a sweat as they covered the first couple of tackles, before Ramien lost the footy forward on the right edge. Kikau did well to recover a juggle, knocking the Steeden from hand to hand a couple of times to finally secure it, while the Sharks sent up a Captain’s Challenge to contest an illegal strip from Ramien on Kikau while Ronaldo Mulitalo was in the tackle.
However, the replay showed that Ramien had indeed got a hand to the footy, and so the Panthers got stuck in again, moving up the middle, and then from side to side, until Luai popped over a floater for Josh Mansour to score in his 150th game – and in his first game at home since August 2018. Cleary wasn’t successful with his first attempt from the sideline, but he booted through the biggest bomb so far to cap off the restart, while Penrith regathered quickly after copping a hard bounce from Trindall’s next kick.
Still, the next Penrith set was the least convincing so far – and a Mulitalo offload to Sione Katoa, and a ruck error from Kikau, got the Sharkies their first big shot in a while on the following set. They made good inroads up the left edge, and yet Cleary came up with the goods, banging Kennedy over the sideline from three metres out, in the best one-on-one contest in the game so far. No surprise, then, that the Panthers put this brief hiatus behind them with their third try next time they had ball in hand.
It started with a short ball from Cleary to Martin, who fended off Josh Dugan, broke through the line, pivoted away from Kennedy, and shot out a bullet ball to Brent Naden just as Katoa came in for contact. Like Kikau before him, Naden bobbled and regathered the footy, crossing over for four more as the Panthers made it ten from ten with completions. Cleary converted, and just like that Penrith had scored 108 points without conceding a single point in the first quarter of their last 14 games of football.
They faded a bit over the next few minutes, however, as a pair of errors from Koroisau and Crichton, and a pair of penalties from Moses Leota and Kikau (hand in the ruck and offside) gave Cronulla enough space to finally accelerate into first gear. Twenty-seven minutes in, Katoa made good metres up the left edge, and found space for Dugan to make even more, before Edwards finally tackled him just outside the ten. With Kikau’s penalty, the Sharks got a fresh set, and got stuck into Penrith from close range.
Trindall laid the groundwork on the left edge, barging over from one metre out, and clearing space for Ramien to put down the toughest try of the night, proving that David could triumph over Goliath after all. Despite finding himself with three big Penrith defenders, the stocky no. 4 held his ground, getting his hand away from the tackle to put down the Steeden with strength and assurance, setting up Matt Moylan for a straightforward conversion just beside the uprights.
Still, the Panthers had the last word in this opening act, despite Tyrone May being penalised for a high shot on Mulitalo three minutes out from the siren. Cronulla got six again late in the tackle count, but couldn’t do much with the augmented field position, since in another David-and-Goliath effort, Koroisau stripped the footy from Braden Hamlin-Uele on play one, just before Yeoh came in to make it two in the tackle.
Penrith cruised up the middle with ease, Crichton outleaped Mulitalo to catch Cleary’s crossfield chip on the full, and the hosts had their fourth four-pointer, while Crichton had become the NRL’s equal top tryscorer of 2020 with Katoa – one point ahead of Alex Johnston, David Nofoaluma and Maika Sivo. Cleary booted through his first conversion from the sideline after the clock had run down, and the Panthers headed to the sheds 22-6, forcing the Sharks to dig deep when they returned from the break.
At first, the mountain men didn’t show any signs of slowing down, muscling their way up the middle on their first set, and cleaning up Dugan with ease after he gathered Cleary’s first bomb. That said, Wade Graham came up with a strong kick on the Sharkies’ second set, although Edwards still managed to withstand Dugan’s chase to remain in the field of play, while Mansour and Naden did well coming off their own line on the next two tackles, before a second Cleary bomb got Penrith some space.
For a moment, it looked like Cronulla had come up with the best try of the game on their next set, as Hamlin-Uele offloaded right on the ground through a Yeoh tackle, and Trindall booted it forward, before collecting it on the bounce and shifting it across for Jack Williams to bump off Martin and get it down right on the try line. Yet the replay showed that Trindall made contact with hand before boot, although Dugan heroically tried to keep this mini-surge alive with three great defensive plays on the following set.
First, Duges brought Martin to ground, then he stopped Zane Tetevano in his tracks, before forcing May to cough up the footy just when he seemed set to score, after Penrith got a restart off a ruck error from Graham. This was terrific defence, and the Sharks followed suit on the next Penrith set, on the other side of the park, where Crichton would have scored off a late offload from Luai if Kennedy hadn’t got in the way – the last great defensive burst from Cronulla before the Panthers reconsolidated.
They got their chance with a Moylan error and ruck infringement from Williams at the fiftieth minute. Martin collected a short ball from Cleary, put in a big right foot step to get past Moylan, and accrued enough speed to barge through a Kennedy tackle right on the line. Full credit goes to Koroisau, too, for the dummy half run that forced Williams’ ruck error in the first place – as well as to Cleary for another superb sideline conversion that bent beautifully to the left, bring his men to a 28-6 advantage.
They received six again on the restart, but Luai didn’t hear the call, booting it downfield just as the sound rang out. Still, the Sharkies didn’t do much with this piece of good luck, despite a good run down the middle from Toby Rudolf, and a follow-up effort from Woodsy that initially looked promising, only for Martin to strip the footy the moment the other two defenders withdrew from the play. You couldn’t ask for a better time for Fish to return to the field, as the Panthers got rolling for their final two tries.
The first came two minutes later, as they eased into a superb left sweep that ended with Mansour taking the footy back in field and offloading to Luai, who shifted it across to Cleary in turn. From there, Nathan sent it right, where Tamou took the tackle, and Edwards’ kick was played at, giving the Panthers another set to play with. All they needed was a single run, as Luai received the Steeden from Cleary, swerved around Hamlin-Uele, and got through Tracey before rising to his feet for an epic Panther roar.
Cleary converted from right in front, and Penrith got rolling again, more or less dominating the next five minutes, until Mansour crossed over for a double. Sauce hadn’t scored in either his 50th or 100th matches, so it was rousing to see him collect a short ball from Crichton and slam over here, remaining untouched until the very last minute, when Siosifa Talakai came in for a last-ditch ankle tap. Cleary booted it through, and so the Panthers reached their final score of 38 with fifteen to go.
After such a spectacular surge of points, it was a bit surprising that the mountain men didn’t manage to pile on a few more tries here, although they did keep Cronulla to only one more try before the final siren rang out. It came five minutes out from the end, off a restless Dugan run and offload, and a trio of linebreaks from Graham, Hunt and Tracey, who crossed over for out of dummy half, showing it to the left before getting through three defenders for his second NRL try.
This was a good closing statement from Cronulla, but the game belonged to Penrith, who just go from strength to strength with each fresh match in 2020. They’ll be looking for an equally big win margin, if not bigger, when they take on the Tigers for next week’s battle of the west at the foot of the mountains, while the Sharkies will be keen to make the most of their home ground advantage when they host the Cowboys next Saturday night at Jubilee.