NERVOUS Cronulla and Penrith fans aren’t exactly sure what will eventuate on Saturday night at the Sharks’ home arena. Last season Penrith’s poor form saw coach Matt Elliott on shaky ground – his team winning just 10 matches, including six away victories – while Cronulla ‘overachieved’, making the preliminary final before being thumped into submission by grand-finalists Melbourne.
This year, however, things are different. The Panthers are adamant their 2009 season will feature more success on the back of a pre-season focus on defence, while the Sharks have experienced significant roster changes; gone are Brett Kimmorley, Fraser Anderson, Greg Bird, Isaac De Gois and Danny Nutley, replaced by Trent Barrett, Anthony Tupou, Corey Hughes and Reni Maitua.
Last season the Panthers struggled in their opening matches of the season; they lost 48-12 against Brisbane at Suncorp Stadium before the Raiders defeated them at home 20-16. The Sharks, on the other hand, started their 2008 campaign in the most convincing of fashions, beating the eventual grand-finalists Manly (16-10) and Melbourne (17-17) on their own turf.
The Sharks eventually finished in a tie for first place at the end of the regular season (third on points differential) and succumbed meekly to the Storm in a grand final qualifier, while the Panthers finished in 12th position... but that was last year, and both teams believe this season will be much different.
Watch out Sharks: The Panthers’ outside backs are potentially as damaging as any in the competition. Explosive speedsters Lachlan Coote, Michael Gordon, Michael Jennings, Brad Tighe and Shane Elford are capable of tearing even the most effective defences to shreds; Jennings, in particular proved a massive handful for opposition teams in 2008, breaking the line on 18 occasions, as well as making 106 tackles, in a total of 23 matches.
The Sharks need to watch him closely. Expect him and his fellow backs to get plenty of early ball from halves Luke Lewis and Jarrod Sammut. Much of their go-forward, however, still relies on Petero Civoniceva, who ran for an average of 142 metres each match, making 23 tackles on the way. If he features prominently it’s a good sign for the Panthers.
Watch out Panthers: New recruit Trent Barrett is a key to the Sharks’ attack. The former Dragon and Wigan half comes into the Sharks’ line-up at five-eighth, alongside Brett Seymour (although he needs to pass a pre-match fitness test) after a two-year stint in the Super League.
His attacking short-passing and short-kicking games will need to be monitored closely by the Panthers’ backs, with backline flyers like Brett Kearney and Ben Pomeroy bound to be recipients.
Former Rooster Anthony Tupou is another who needs to be watched, with his ball-playing skills a major attacking weapon. Last season he delivered 61 offloads (team-mate Paul Gallen is another high on the list with 64) and his ability to deliver these passes in traffic is a huge threat to any defence.
Gallen averaged more than 150 metres a match last season for a total of 3113 for the year, providing the Sharks with plenty of momentum; if the Panthers are to win they need to shut him down.
Where it will be won: The halves’ battle is one that will determine the outcome of the match. How will Barrett gel with new partner Seymour? And how will Lewis find another match at five-eighth, this time alongside Sammut? Seymour, cast away by coach Ricky Stuart in 2007, had a fantastic season in 2008 and was a reason for the Sharks’ unexpected success. Last year he created 17 tries, was one of the league’s most effective one-on-one tacklers and missed just one match.
The stats for the Panthers halves, however, were less flattering, with Sammut playing just 12 matches in the top grade and Lewis playing in a number of positions. But if they gel they’re capable of starting the Panthers’ season with a victory.
The History: Played 74; Sharks 38, Panthers 33, drawn 3. Last season the honours were shared in two tight contests, with the Sharks winning at CUA Stadium 24-22 after a Panthers comeback, while the Panthers pipped Cronulla 21-20 at Toyota Stadium.
Conclusion: The teams are ready and the result of this clash is anyone’s call. Last season’s close matches, as well as the Sharks’ off-season roster changes, could see the Panthers get an upset here. But with Cronulla’s strong 2008 season and the lack of big-name signings Penrith made after a poor showing last year, expect the Sharks to get the two competition points here.
Match officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Phil Haines; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Peter Kirby; Video Referee – Russell Smith.
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 9.30pm.
* Stats: NRL Stats.