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Panthers v Sharks
CUA Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

THE big cats at the foot of the mountain are beginning to purr like it’s 2003 – but don’t get too carried away just yet.

Penrith’s young cubs are playing an exciting brand of footy that has some good judges thinking the under-rated side could go all the way as they did when they went from last to first to pip the Roosters for the premiership six years ago.

Sure, there are some great signs for Penrith. Recent acquisition Luke Walsh guiding the team from halfback, Luke Lewis finding a home at 13, Trent Waterhouse and Frank Pritchard starring in the second row, big Petero still killing them prop and instinctive players Michael Jennings, Jarrod Sammut and Lachlan Coote setting the backline alight.  

But the Big Cats still have to overcome inconsistency and they’re a long way from proving they have shaken off this demon.

They will get no greater test than at CUA this Saturday night, because there’s no doubt the Sharks are a team they should beat.

In amongst their poor form (last), dire financial situation and now with off-field dramas of the past being revisited, it’s been a tough period for Cronulla and they will certainly be desperate to notch up a win on the road.

Cronulla will battle hard as they always do, but even if they do that, Penrith should still win.

There are no excuses for the Panthers in this game – they’re a more talented team than their opponents and on home soil the two points should be guaranteed.

It’s a pressure game for them because for the sake of their own confidence and momentum, they must succeed.

Watch out Panthers: There’s one man and one man only the Panthers need to be wary of: Paul Gallen.

He’s really more than one man out there on the field for Cronulla, he plays the role of about five players. In the last club match he played for the Sharks, against the Roosters a fortnight ago, his statistics were mind-blowing and record-setting.

Gallen made 27 runs for 206 metres, effected 34 tackles, got away six offloads, had six tackle breaks and a line break, and scored a try. While this performance may have been extraordinary, he’s capable of exceptional efforts every time he takes the field – he averages 136 metres a game and is the leading lock forward in the NRL when it comes to line breaks and offloads.

The Panthers need to watch the lift Gallen will give the other Sharks players out on the field. Cronulla might be down in the dumps – but they could respond to Gallen’s heroics and Penrith must guard against this.

Watch out Sharks: NSW Origin-bound centre Michael Jennings is one of those players you can only “sort of” mark up on. You can say you’ve got him and look like you have him covered – and then with a click of his heels he’s gone in a flash and you’re left standing still.

Jennings has explosive pace, to rival the likes of John ‘Chicka’ Ferguson and Steve Renouf. He can jet better than anyone in rugby league and his lightning footwork is impossible to defend against if he gets some space. The St Marys junior leads the NRL for line breaks, with a total of eight from eight games. And he’s also the number one centre when it comes to tackle breaks as well.

Cronulla don’t have anyone with this kind of offensive ability in their backline; they must find a way of suffocating Jennings from early ball if they’re to be a chance.

Where it will be won: Last year the Sharks were able to get away with impotence in attack because their defence was so strong, but in 2009 that’s no longer the case. Their attack has worsened, which in turn has put more pressure on their ‘D’ – and as a result their tackling has caved in.

Only the Wests Tigers, Raiders and Panthers have made fewer tackles this season than Cronulla. The Sharks trail just Parramatta for the least amount of try-saving tackles, which perhaps shows the extra bit of urgency that was there last year has evaporated. The Shire boys have scored just 19 tries in eight matches this season, the lowest by any team in the NRL. Quite simply, the Sharks can’t win this game unless the Panthers lose it.

Penrith is placed amongst the median of teams when it comes to elements of their attack and defence – meaning both areas certainly have room for improvement. But they’ve got the basis of a solid goal-line defence there, and they can score tries – it’s just a matter of becoming more consistent in both areas. The Panthers’ major problem is concentration lapses during games.

They are second in the league for penalties conceded while in possession, and this statistic is really unacceptable. With the likes of Jennings, Sammut and Coote in their side, long-range tries aren’t a problem for Penrith. But playmakers Luke Walsh, Wade Graham, Paul Aiton and Luke Lewis need to take on more responsibility close to the line and execute more plays inside the opposition’s 20. Penrith will get plenty of chances to score points in this game – if they take a few of them, they’re home and hosed.

The History: Both teams entered the league in 1967 and the spoils are pretty evenly shared. Cronulla has 39 wins to Penrith’s 33 from the 75 games played. There have been three drawn results. At CUA Stadium it’s the Panthers who hold an advantage – they’ve got home 20 times to Cronulla’s 14 from 34 clashes at the foot of the mountain.
Conclusion: The Sharks beat Penrith in Round 1 this year and haven’t won since. They’ll be hoping the Panthers can be their bunnies again here, but the Panthers have evolved into a quality football team in the past nine weeks. They are now a team with direction and will be hard to beat on a chilly Penrith night.

These teams have a great history against each other, having entered the competition in the same year. Cronulla has the beaches but Penrith has the premierships and ‘the Pennies’ will be hoping to take another step towards another one on Saturday night.

Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Gerard Sutton. Sideline Officials – Gavin Reynolds & Mohamad Fajajo. Video Ref: Russell Smith.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7.30pm.
Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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