Matt Encarnacion, Western Sydney Correspondent, NRL.com
Panthers v Sharks
Carrington Park, Bathurst
Saturday, 3pm (AEST)
Exactly 738 days after he played his last game for the Panthers, veteran Luke Lewis finally gets to re-acquaint himself with his old club when the Sharks meet Penrith on Saturday afternoon.
The second-placed Panthers have taken their home game against the cellar-dwellers further out west to Bathurst this week, so while Lewis still won't get the homecoming he wanted – the former Penrith captain failed to finish the 2012 season because of his battle with thyroid cancer – the game still represents an opportunity for both camps to show how much they've moved on.
Much was expected of Cronulla after their dramatic charge into the final six last season, but the Sharks could only watch as their Year from Hell went from one calamity to the next.
Their 36-18 defeat to North Queensland last Friday night – the Cowboys' first road win all season – was just another nail in the coffin for a club that can't get to the off-season quickly enough.
For the Panthers, the business end can certainly wait a few weeks. While their regeneration post-Lewis has eventually turned them into the surprise packets of 2014, the mountain men came out shooting blanks against defending premiers the Roosters in their 32-12 loss last Saturday afternoon. They'll need to flex their muscles against the lowly Sharks if they want to be taken seriously.
Skipper and halfback Peter Wallace will give them the boost, but powerful wingman Josh Mansour wasn't named by coach Ivan Cleary on Tuesday. Given he was close to returning last week, don't be surprised if he's a late call-up. Cleary has also gone with a rookie second-row pairing for the first time this year in Bryce Cartwright and Isaah Yeo, with Sika Manu and Adam Docker back on the bench.
Cronulla could also get a late boost in the form of inspirational captain Paul Gallen, who is doing all he can to try to lift his team off the bottom of the NRL totem pole. The victorious NSW skipper wasn't named on Tuesday – but it's not like he hasn't gotten up off the canvas before, while forgotten Dragon Matt Prior makes a rare sighting on an extended bench.
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Watch Out Panthers: Fresh prop Andrew Fifita is just getting warmed up. The 118m and 114m he's tallied since his comeback two weeks ago is the third and fourth-lowest numbers he's posted this season. But his 46 tackles last week was definitely a season-high, allaying any fears that the representative player isn't at full strength. He's also offloaded a combined eight times in the two games.
Watch Out Sharks: Last week was a test within a test for hotshot rookie Bryce Cartwright. Not only was his team put through the furnace, but the defending premiers had eyes only for the fifth-game rookie in attack – and the 20-year-old passed the test with flying colours. Not only did he score a try, run 86 metres and break five tackles, but he also made a remarkable 35 tackles too, missing just two. There's no doubting the kid's got some brilliance in him, but he's got some real starch about him too.
Plays To Watch: Cartwright got his first run-on at five-eighth last week, but now that he's starting at his favoured position in the second row, expect the Panthers to utilise his offloading ability against the smaller defenders on the edges.
For the Sharks, Fa'amanu Brown's touches have been gradually falling over the past four weeks, and so have his metres. Look for the rookie pivot to return to his fleet-footed ways.
Where It Will Be Won: Cleary lambasted his side's kicking display against the Roosters, and with general Wallace back in the team, expect stern improvement in that area. That doesn't bode well for the Sharks, who make less kick returns and less kick return metres than any team in the competition. If they don't track down the kicks of Jamie Soward and Wallace, they'll just be ground down to a pulp.
What Are The Odds:
Sportsbet punters can’t split the Panthers and the Sharks as far as money is concerned, however more single bets have been taken on Penrith. Three times the money has gone on the Panthers at the line of -8.5. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
The History: Played 94; Penrith 42, Cronulla 48, drawn 4. Not much has gone right for the Panthers against their fellow 1967 competition entrants, with the Shire men enjoying a 4-1 advantage over their past five, including a 24-20 upset in late April when Cronulla came from behind at halftime to win a nail-biter. The neutral setting of the picturesque Carrington Park provides good memories for both sides – the Panthers have won both their games at the venue in 1985 and 1990, while the Sharks also took out both of theirs in 1987 and 1992.
Match Officials: Referees – Adam Devcich & Henry Perenara; Sideline Officials – Dan Eastwood & Phil Henderson; Video Referees – Steve Chiddy & Paul Mellor.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 3pm (AEST).
The Way We See It: The neutral venue takes the sting out of what has been a cold Sportingbet Stadium for visiting teams this season, and the possible return of Gallen will boost Cronulla's chances even more. They're on opposite ends of the table but this one will be closer than you think. Panthers by four points.