Sharks v Panthers Preview

Sharks v Panthers
Toyota Stadium
Sunday, 3pm (AEST)

It may not have the bitterness of a ‘Fibros v Silvertails’ rivalry, or contain the history of a Tigers and Rabbitohs match-up at a picturesque Sydney Cricket Ground, but if recent history is anything to go by, then this Sunday afternoon’s Heritage Round clash between the Sharks and the Panthers is sure to be a beauty.

The past six contests between the two have been split, with all but one game being decided by less than eight points – which means you can bet your house on a thriller between two of the most under-achieving clubs running around in the NRL at the moment (the Sharks have won two of their past 16 games while the Panthers haven’t made the finals since 2004).

And if that’s not enough to motivate you for a trip to the Shire, then maybe a short trip down memory lane will do the trick…  

Last year’s corresponding fixture resulted in then-Sharks skipper Paul Gallen cutting a forlorn figure, shouldering the loss after the most scandalous week in the club’s history, Penrith captain Petero Civoniceva receiving a rare trip to the sin bin, and Cronulla almost stealing a win with three tries in the final 13 minutes.

Then there were the two Penrith tries scored in the final three minutes of the Round 13 clash in 2008, which the Sharks won by two points; and the previous game, where a golden-point field goal from Jarrod Sammut ruined Cronulla cult hero Lance Thompson’s farewell.  

So while they may not be the biggest of rivals, Cronulla and Penrith certainly know how to put on a classic rugby league showdown.

And while the Sharks are quickly becoming the butt of all rugby league jokes in 2010, the Panthers are once again setting the hearts of their long-suffering fans aflutter with their current fourth-place standing.

With the exception of point-scoring whiz Luke Covell (knee), the home side are almost at full strength, while the Panthers have barely visited the medical ward over the past month of footy.
 
Watch out Sharks: The brilliant kicking game of the Panthers is making it easy to identify a potential weakness in their opposition each week; the Sharks fit the bill, and will be powerless against the Luke Walsh-Lachlan Coote combination.

The Sharks have defused just 30 per cent of bombs kicked to them this year – easily the worst rate in the NRL – and have named their second rookie this year – another former Eel in Nathan Gardner – as their last line of defence.

If he’s anything like the unfortunate Albert Kelly – who we all wanted to cuddle after his four errors (and there would’ve been more had he got close to a few of those bombs) – then Coote (11 tries) should be top of the try-scoring list by the end of this round.

Even talented winger Blake Ferguson has had his struggles this year, making a team-high 16 errors so far.

Watch out Panthers: The Sharks have always been renowned for a having a good, solid forward pack, and while most of it is down to inspirational skipper Paul Gallen (159 metres per game and 22 offloads), it’s the front row pairing of Luke Douglas and Kade Snowden who are doing much damage.  

The Sharks are the most dominant tackling team in the competition (269) and Douglas (36 average) and Snowden (33) are the major contributors. They’re the hardest-working tacklers in the team (Douglas – 256, Snowden – 255), including a 90 per cent tackling efficiency, while Douglas has also recorded a team-high seven tackle saves.

They’re also useful with ball in hand, both making more than 100 metres a game, and Snowden topping that with 29 tackle busts this year. If the Sharks are going to grind out a win here, it’ll start with these two getting them over the advantage line.

Where it will be won: There are several factors that could influence the outcome of this game. First, both these teams rank in the bottom two for line-breaks made this year (Sharks – 23, Panthers – 28) – a staggering stat for the Panthers, who have scored more tries (37) than any team except Manly.

Second, the Sharks have made fewer metres than any team in the competition and if they aren’t playing in the opposition’s danger zone, they’re not scoring tries. The Panthers, on the other hand, rank first in total metres made by the opposition, meaning all of the footy is played away from their line.

Last, the Luke Walsh factor: the Newcastle discard has a league-high 15 try assists, while the Sharks’ Trent Barrett and Tim Smith have a total of three try assists between them – Smith contributing zero.

The history:
Played 76; Cronulla 39, Penrith 34, Drawn 3. While recent history and overall history suggests the balance between the two clubs is fairly even, the contests at Toyota Stadium are not. Cronulla have won almost half of the 39 games played in the Shire, recording 24 victories to Penrith’s 12, with three draws.    

Conclusion: On paper, this one has ‘Panthers’ written all over it – but the Sharks will fancy themselves at home, where they’ve won their past two games by convincing margins.

Still, the Panthers will be buoyed by the re-signing of Petero Civoniceva and will no doubt want to confirm their position in the top four with a strong effort against a struggling outfit.

Match officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Brett Suttor; Sideline officials – Russell Turner & Gavin Morris; Video Referee – Paul Simpkins

Televised:  Channel Nine – Delayed  4pm (AEST); Fox Sports – Delayed 6pm.