Oh, the irony – the game’s ultimate gentleman is suspended for two weeks, while the game’s niggle specialist could win the Dally M next week.
Argue it any way you want, but Penrith skipper Petero Civoniceva was made the scapegoat for a series of offences in other games last weekend, culminating in the representative star being sent off. As a result, he misses the final home game of the regular season in what was supposed to be a celebration of what the mountain men have achieved this year.
On the flip side, Cronulla’s Paul Gallen (who’s favoured to take over the retiring Trent Barrett as skipper in 2011) has emerged as a leading contender for the Dally M medal. Yep, that’s right. Even in a team that’s been the butt of jokes all season, the player renowned for ‘pushing the envelope’ in the game is in line to take out the game’s most coveted prize.
It makes for an intriguing final round clash at CUA Stadium on Saturday night, and all eyes will be fixed on how the hosts respond without their inspirational skipper. City representative Tim Grant, who recently extended his stay at Penrith for another four years, returns from an ankle injury to replace him.
The Panthers will also be without Luke Walsh, who suffered an ankle injury in last Monday’s 24-18 victory. In another ironic twist, he’ll be replaced by the Shire-bound Wade Graham.
Despite the confidence they’ll take out of their last-second win over the Bulldogs last Monday, the jury is still out on whether Penrith are genuine premiership contenders. Nevertheless, the men in black are assured of a home semi-final next week, but a win over the Sharks could see them finish the regular season in second place.
On the other hand the Sharks were impressive in their 10-16 upset victory over the Titans last week. It was their second boil-over in three weeks, after handing the Roosters an 18-12 loss before going down in Melbourne the week after.
The visitors have named an unchanged line-up to the one that beat Gold Coast last Saturday night.
Watch out Panthers: There’s no denying that the Sharks are playing some much better football since Shane Flanagan has taken over the reins in the Shire. In the past three weeks alone, Cronulla have completed almost 80 per cent of their total sets.
As usual, their strength is in the forward pack, where the representative trio of Luke Douglas, Kade Snowden and Paul Gallen combine to average more than 400 metres a game. In last week’s game alone, they recorded 512 metres between them.
Against a Penrith side without their biggest metre-eater in Civoniceva, the Penrith forwards will have their work cut out trying to limit Cronulla’s surge up the field.
Watch out Sharks: In Michael Gordon, Michael Jennings, Luke Lewis and Frank Pritchard, Penrith have match winners across the park – but it’s the man with the whistle who could loom as Cronulla’s biggest obstacle for their final match of the season.
The Sharks have the worst record of any NRL team under Robinson, winning just eight of 18 games played in games adjudicated by him. It gets worse away from home, where they’ve won just twice from their 11 matches.
Where it will be won: Discipline. Penrith and Cronulla rank second and third respectively in penalties conceded, making them two of the most ill-disciplined teams in the competition.
Of the 145 penalties the Panthers have given away this year, this week’s stand-in captain Luke Lewis has provided 21, while Kingston is the next worst with 14.
For the Sharks, former international Anthony Tupou and Snowden have each contributed 15 of Cronulla’s 144 penalties.
The history: Played 77; Sharks 39, Panthers 35, drawn 3. They’ve split the past eight games evenly, but the mountain men did enjoy a 34-14 victory in the Shire earlier this year.
The Panthers hold the advantage in matches played at CUA Stadium, winning 21 of the 35 games played.
Conclusion: It’s a shame this game isn’t being played at Toyota Stadium, where the Sharkies have recorded consecutive victories. Instead, it’s out at CUA Stadium, where the home ground advantage and the anticipation of a home final the week after, should give the hosts the leg up they need.
Match officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Chris James; Sideline officials – Ricky McFarlane & Adam Reid; Video referee – Paul Simpkins
Televised: Fox Sports – Delayed 9.20pm (or live on viewer’s choice, 7:30pm)