There’s nothing quite like the agony and heartbreak of a season being cut cruelly short. That’s the feeling Penrith fans across the country are waking up to after their narrow 21-20 exit at the hands of an experienced Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks outfit on Friday night.
The Sharks, who boasted far more key players with big-match finals experience definitely seemed to cope better with the intensity of the contest early and while Penrith failed to control the football and maintain possession, they pounced.
Tries to Chad Townsend, Valentine Holmes and the ever-green Luke Lewis sent Cronulla out to an 18-0 lead before the young Panthers managed to settle things down and pull two points back through a penalty goal in the dying seconds of the first half.
A stunning display of never giving up saw Nathan Cleary grab a four-pointer of his own before tries to Isaah Yeo and Waqa Blake saw the contest all squared up.
A 74th-minute field goal from Chad Townsend, one of the ugliest of his career no doubt, was the ultimate difference on the night as Cronulla won 21-20.
1 Slow start butchers Panther's hopes
It should come as absolutely no surprise that Penrith got off to a slow start again on Friday night given they've managed to do that on numerous occasions in 2018.
Often, the Panthers have managed to stage dramatic comebacks from even the biggest of deficits, but an 18-0 lead to a clinical and efficient outfit like the Cronulla Sharks was always going to be a tough mountain to overcome.
And so it proved.
While the Panthers did manage to square things up and make a game of it at 20-20, the Sharks key men kept their heads and kept their side in the contest, defending stoutly and repelling some serious Penrith attack before slotting a field goal and taking themselves through for another week of sudden-death football.
Penrith will rue yet another slow start, because on the balance of what they were able to do in the second half, they'll feel like they could have beaten anyone.
2 Luke Lewis as good as ever
Veteran forward Luke Lewis, once of the parish of Penrith before switching to the Sutherland shire decided to call time on his storied career at the end of the 2018 campaign but on the evidence of his performances in the last few weeks, one must wonder if that was a little premature.
At 35-years-old it's totally understandable that Lewis may feel the body can no longer stand up to the rigours of the National Rugby League but losing him from the game will be more than just a good player not on deck for the Sharks, it'll mean losing an inspirational leader and the sort of guy that leaves nothing on the field at the end of 80 minutes.
Lewis grabbed himself a four-pointer against his former club on Friday night, but it was his bruising defence and line speed which were most impressive.
The forward was heavily involved all night and was well and truly amongst the Sharks best in a narrow win.
3 Empty feeling for the mob from the Riff
On the balance of things, 2018 will probably go down as a fairly successful year for the Panthers.
Coming into the season, expectations were low and many experts predictions they'd slide down the ladder and finish amongst the bottom eight so to lead the league at one point before making it through to the second week of finals footy is probably a decent achievement.
Unfortunately, with finals football comes the agonising questions and empty feeling of being dumped out without reaching the big prize at the very end.
Even the most loyal of Penrith supporter had every right to question where the club stood as the final siren sounded at Allianz Stadium and Nathan Cleary's last-ditch attempt at field goal proved fruitless.
The signs are still good at Penrith, they've built a sustainable development system and they're keeping the kids they want to keep, but until the tangible return of a premiership is reached, there's always be a feeling of 'what if?'
4 Sharks may lose Paul Gallen for Grand Final qualifier
Winning through to the next week in a final is always the paramount goal but the secondary objective is always to do so without injuries.
Unfortunately for Cronulla, they managed only the first objective as Paul Gallen was carted off with a rotator cuff injury in the 48th minute after attempting a tackle on Penrith's live-wire fullback Dallin Watene-Zelezniak.
Gallen was unable to lift his arm above his head after the game and there are significant fears he'll miss Cronulla's date with the Melbourne Storm next weekend.
Given Gallen's famed toughness, having him go off the field was always a sign things weren't good, but if the Sharks are without their inspirational skipper after that bruising encounter with Penrith and against a fresh and rested Melbourne Storm outfit, things could get ugly.
5 Old faces back to haunt Penrith, again
Say what you will about the high-profile swap deal Penrith and Cronulla conducted with Matt Moylan and James Maloney respectively, both sides probably ended up getting a good deal.
That said, it must be incredibly painful for Penrith fans to see how consistently they're put to the sword by former players in recent years.
Moylan's first two games against the Panthers came with his former side under-strength throughout the campaign, but he was again influential as they beat a near full-strength outfit on Friday night while the aforementioned Luke Lewis was amongst the best players on the park.
Being a development club can have that effect sometimes, but gee it must hurt some heads along Mulgoa Road when Penrith fans contemplate the amount of former players they've got floating around who manage to pull out their best games against the Panthers every year.
What did you learn from Cronulla's 21-20 win over the Panthers? Let us know in the comments below.
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