It’s do-or-die finals footy at the old Sydney Football Stadium when two long-time bitter rivals clash with the right to progress to a Grand Final qualifier on the line.
The Sharks and Panthers have a long history of brutal conflicts and there is distinctly no love lost between the two sides which entered the competition together way back in 1967.
Throw in some obvious conflict between players, player swaps and a mutual dislike stemming back 50 years and you have the recipe for a perfect Friday night in old Sydney town.
Just when you thought it couldn’t get any more heated, we hear Cronulla players and staff are still bristling at a comment Penrith supremo Phil Gould delivered on his podcast two years ago.
Gould sensationally labelled the Sharks’ drought-breaking 2016 Premiership win as soft and, despite responding at the time, it has surfaced through media reports that there are people still at the club using Gould’s words as further motivation for a huge clash.
2018 – Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks 24 def. Penrith Panthers 12 at Panthers Stadium
2018 – Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks 26 def. Penrith Panthers 22 at Southern Cross Group Stadium
2017 – Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks 28 def. Penrith Panthers 2 at Panthers Stadium
2016 – Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks 26 def. Penrith Panthers 10 at Panthers Stadium
2016 – Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks 20 def. Penrith Panthers 18 at Southern Cross Group Stadium
The recent history of this fiery clash makes for some pretty dire reading for Penrith fans, while their Shire-based brethren will no doubt glean some extra confidence in their side given how dominant they have proved to be over the men from the foot of the mountains.
Cronulla has won their last five meetings with the Panthers dating back to April 2016 while Penrith had only managed to end a three-game losing streak to Cronulla 12 months earlier with a 26-18 win at Panthers Stadium.
Penrith’s last win against the Sharks was spearheaded by an impressive Matt Moylan who scored a try and kicked a perfect 5/5 off the tee. No doubt the Panthers will be hoping for a less polished performance from the enigmatic playmaker this time around.
These two sides did meet only a couple of months ago when the Sharks notched a handy 24-12 win at Panthers Stadium with two-try hero Valentine Holmes the star of the show.
|Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks||Penrith Panthers|
|1||Valentine Holmes||Dallin Watene-Zelezniak|
|2||Sosaia Feki||Josh Mansour|
|18||Jesse Ramien||Waqa Blake|
|4||Ricky Leutele||Tyrone Peachey|
|5||Edrick Lee||Christian Crichton|
|6||Matt Moylan||James Maloney|
|7||Chad Townsend||Nathan Cleary|
|8||Andrew Fifita||Trent Merrin|
|9||Jayden Brailey||Sione Katoa|
|10||Matt Prior||Reagan Campbell-Gillard|
|11||Luke Lewis||Viliame Kikau|
|12||Scott Sorensen||Isaah Yeo|
|13||Paul Gallen||James Fisher-Harris|
|14||Kurt Capewell||Tyrone May|
|15||James Segeyaro||Moses Leota|
|16||Aaron Woods||Corey Harawira-Naera|
|17||Jayson Bukuya||James Tamou|
|20/19||Joseph Paulo||Jack Hetherington|
|21||Kyle Flanagan||Tyrone Phillips|
The facts that matter
Cronulla went into last week’s final against the Roosters on the back of a four-game winning streak and despite having any number of chances to upset the minor premiers on their home deck, they were far from clinical enough to grab hold of their opportunities and build an advantage.
Head coach Shane Flanagan will be hoping for a more polished performance this week when they take on a Penrith side which has shown itself equally capable of scoring points and conceding them for much of the 2018 campaign.
The Sharks butchered at least three genuine try-scoring opportunities last Saturday night and it cost them dearly in a fairly narrow loss. It would be highly unlikely for a professional outfit like Cronulla to pair up back-to-back weeks in the opposition red-zone, so we can expect that playmakers Matt Moylan, Valentine Holmes and Chad Townsend will back their fringe guys to be up to the task this Friday night.
Cronulla holds a distinct 49-38 advantage in the head-to-head stakes with the Panthers as per rugbyleagueproject.com, but the important difference will remain Penrith’s pair of Premiership successes to Cronulla’s lone title. If the Sharks can overcome Penrith this week, they’ll be well poised to level that ledger.
The loss of Wade Graham to a season-ending ACL injury last week will come as a crippling blow to the Sharks’ attacking fringe though the 2016 premiers are not without plenty of strike weapons across the park.
Fullback Valentine Holmes has taken his game to another level since playing State of Origin football for Queensland earlier in the year and he looms as the biggest threat for Penrith’s big forwards while Andrew Fifita and Matt prior will relish a middle-third battle with Penrith’s Reagan Campbell-Gillard and James Fisher-Harris.
Keeping Fififta’s handy second-phase play active will be a priority for Sharks coach Shane Flanagan. Fifita leads the league in offloads with 72 and creates countless opportunities every time he’s able to free up the ball and drag defenders to his ample frame.
If Cronulla can take the opportunities created through the middle of the ruck by Fififta and company, 21-try star Holmes could prove too much to handle for a Penrith defence capable of throwing up a poor performance in their own right.
The withdrawal of Josh Dugan on the eve of Friday night's clash through injury sees Jesse Ramien into the starting side at centre after having been originally named in the #18 jersey. Dugan succumbed to an ongoing shoulder complaint.
If you could have sat down and hand-picked a two stretch of two games from here to the Grand Final for Penrith, it’s safe to say the two clubs you’d have tried to avoid at all costs would be the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks and the Melbourne Storm.
Naturally, as things stand Penrith will tackle Cronulla this Friday night and, should they overcome a long-running hoodoo and beat the Sharks, they’ll have to take on the Melbourne Storm a week later.
Who said there’s no such thing as Murphy’s Law in the NRL?
Penrith have been a bit of a mixed bag since the unceremonious sacking of Anthony Griffin but fledgling coach Cameron Ciraldo seemed to have proceedings back to their very best in a dominant 27-12 win over the New Zealand Warriors at ANZ Stadium last Saturday night.
The Panthers were clinical and ruthless with the ball in hand, completing 34/39 sets (87%) and out-running New Zealand with 179 runs (1441 run metres) to 153 (1349 run metres) as they dispatched the Warriors.
Penrith will also be mindful of shutting down former club legend and 2003 Premiership winner Luke Lewis who, if the result goes against Cronulla on Friday night, could be playing his last game in the NRL. Could Penrith prove a fitting end to a stellar career, only time will tell.
The Panthers probably did not do enough in their rugged win over the Storm in Melbourne to put the competition back on notice but their clinical disposal of the Warriors last week went some way to restoring some credibility in their outside Premiership chances.
The Panthers also hold a slight advantage in troops given they have no significant injuries to key players at an important time of the season.
This one could the be the tightest, most intense contest of a gripping finals series so far. Penrith and Cronulla genuinely dislike each other and there is every chance this one boils over into a free-for-all if one side runs away with it and emotions run high.
There are plenty of key figures on both sides who could potentially step up and win this game for their club, but I like the experience of a guy like James Maloney in this arena.
Maloney was tremendous last week as he took a beating and stayed standing to deliver Penrith a hard-fought win and I think he could put on a similar show on Friday night. That said, he'll have a big target on his back and guys like Paul Gallen breathing down his neck all night.
My tip: Penrith by 2.
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