IT remained a week to forget for the Cronulla Sharks as they slumped to their eighth straight loss, succumbing to a Penrith side who continue to move up the NRL totem pole having now won three in a row.
The Sharks battled hard and were a little unlucky, as can often be the case for a side lacking confidence, with their dominant portions of the game failing to yield enough points to prevail over the 80 minutes.
If you were to just peruse a few game stats, for instance – line breaks: Cronulla 8, Penrith 3; missed tackles: Cronulla 30, Penrith 51 – you might have expected the Sharks to have walked away with the win, but once again they failed to capitalise.
For all but a few minutes of the first half the visitors seemed the better side, cracking the Panthers open on several occasions before a loose pass, kick or 50-50 call counted against them.
They managed one try in the opening 40 minutes; problem was the Panthers grabbed two in the space of three minutes to take an ‘undeserved’ 12-6 lead into the break.
The home side pushed ahead early in the second half once possession came their way and it looked as if the Sharks would once again surrender the competition points at 20-6 down, before a mini-fightback had their fans building hope.
The side clawed to within two points but were knocked back down to earth with a Luke Lewis 75th-minute try, and once again there would be no joy for Ricky Stuart and his men.
The Game Swung When… This match had several crucial twists and turns. The first came between the 25th and 27th minutes when, despite having dominated play, the Sharks conceded two rapid-fire tries to the Panthers. The first was a simple 40-metre intercept for Penrith winger Geoff Daniela, who certainly must have counted his lucky stars when Paul Gallen offloaded the ball straight to him as if he was wearing sky blue and not brown.
Just moments later Paul Aiton was finishing off a clever long-range try and the home side was up 12-0 despite being slow out of the blocks.
At 20-6 to the Panthers after three quarters of time had expired, the match appeared headed for an obvious conclusion – but the gritty Sharks refused to die without a fight.
They posted two Anthony Tupou tries to be within two points inside the final 10 minutes only for the momentum to once again shift back to Penrith when Luke Lewis leapt above the pack to claim a cross-kick and victory.
Who Was Hot… The Panthers didn’t really have any stand-out performers yet they still did enough to win the match.
Luke Lewis was reliable as always with over 100 metres gained and 22 tackles plus the crucial try, but the rest of the team just did what they were required to do.
The Sharks had some good individual efforts: Trent Barrett had two try assists and a try, Paul Gallen (152 metres, 45 tackles) tried hard as always and Anthony Tupou was strong with two tries, 136 metres gained, 38 tackles, 10 tackle breaks, five offloads and three line breaks. Cronulla youngster Blake Ferguson can take some pride out of an effort that yielded 213 metres, 10 tackle breaks, two line breaks and his very first NRL try.
Who Was Not… The defence of both sides was pretty scratchy – 81 missed tackles for the match was pretty ordinary for first grade football.
Had To Be Seen To Be Believed… Paul Aiton’s first-half try was a great advertisement for why the club recently acquired, and then extended a contract for, halfback Luke Walsh. Under pressure on the last tackle by a rushing Tony Caine, Walsh instinctively jinked to the right, saw the smallest of gaps and was through it before the Sharks knew what hit them.
Walsh then offloaded to Jarrod Sammut who in turn found Aiton and the Papua New Guinea representative finished off the 60-metre movement under the posts.
It was also good to see the enigmatic Frank Pritchard produce one of his trademark left-side bursts. His 60-metre sprint for a try right after half time is something Panthers fans will be wishing they see much more of.
Injuries… Trent Barrett suffered a pretty bad facial cut but continued on throughout the match.
Bad Boys… Frank Pritchard was charged with tripping in the aftermath of this game but the offence was as minor as they come at grade one and he’ll be available to continue playing regardless of his plea.
Ref Watch… Jared Maxwell and Gerard Sutton got the job done but with two sin-binnings in the match their performance will no doubt come under stringent review. Both incidents seemed like fair decisions on the surface, with players well aware of the consequences for professional fouls.
Sharks officials might like to take another look at a forward pass call late in the first half that may have cost them crucial points.
NRL.com Best & Fairest… 3 points – Luke Lewis (Panthers): Wasn’t his best game of the year by any stretch of the imagination but when something was needed he was there, including at the death to win the match; 2 points – Anthony Tupou (Sharks): Two tries helped his side back into the contest. When he was needed, this former rep player lifted; 1 point – Trent Barrett (Sharks): Ran pretty much a lone hand as the Sharks’ playmaker yet almost dragged them into the winner’s circle. All this despite a shocking facial cut.
Panthers 26 (G Daniela, P Aiton, F Pritchard, L Lewis tries; J Sammut 5 goals) def Sharks 22 (A Tupou 2, B Ferguson, T Barrett tries; L Covell 3 goals) at CUA Stadium. Crowd: 11,750.