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Penrith Panthers v Cronulla Sharks
Centrebet Stadium
Saturday 5.30pm

It’s remarkable how closely the fortunes of these two sides have mirrored each other in the opening two rounds. Both teams opened 2011 with coach-killing performances of epic proportions, riddled with errors, missed tackles and silly penalties.

Then both teams somehow managed to turn it all around in a week, and came out and played sensible, low-risk footy and managed to overcome more fancied opposition – and make a mess of plenty of people’s weekend tips while they were at it.

The challenge now for both teams is to show that their last-start wins weren’t a fluke by backing up and doing it all again. They already have the formula – but can they stick to it?

The Sharks will go in with the same starting side, but will have Paul Aiton back from his one-week suspension for head-butting Raider Joel Thompson. He joins a five-man bench along with the returning Dean Collis, and Stuart Flanagan is the man to make way.

Despite speculation that new recruit Timana Tahu would benefit from Brad Tighe’s one-week suspension for a dangerous throw, the former Knight, Eel and dual international has not been named. Instead Adrian Purtell moves from the bench to the centres, although it is still possible Tahu may be added to the squad before kick-off.

A hamstring injury to five eighth Travis Burns means Luke Lewis shifts from lock to pivot, and Matthew Bell moves from the bench to cover Lewis. Masada Iosefa and Sandor Earl have been added to the pine.

Cronulla have the chance to record back-to-back wins for the first time since 2009, while a win to the Panthers would make it four in a row over the Sharks for the first time since 1984-86.

Watch Out Panthers: New buy Jeremy Smith (who plays his 100th NRL game) seems to have slotted right into the Cronulla forward pack and along with inspirational skipper Paul Gallen and Anthony Tupou, the three were a constant menace in both defence and attack against the Dragons.

Smith’s bruising, in-your-face approach is a perfect complement for Gallen’s hard-hitting style and together the forwards seemed to feed off each other’s energy to shut down the Dragons once they sensed they could defend their way to a win.

On paper the Sharks have one of the best packs in the NRL and if they truly click as a unit it will be tough for any opposition’s forwards to make inroads.

Danger Sign: Self-belief seems to have been a problem for the Sharks for a while now but a well-earned win over the defending premiers may be just the tonic they needed to start cashing in on their potential. They will have their backs up here to shake the tag of perennial underachievers.

Watch Out Sharks: The Panthers may be wounded but sometimes adversity can bring out the best in elite sportsmen. Luke Lewis is a lock these days but has played plenty of five-eighth in his career, and the move back there will bring him closer to the action in attack, allowing him to use his dangerous running game to put the defence in two minds.

It will also allow Walsh to work on launching dangerous kicks in behind the play for support players such as Lachlan Coote – a tactic that was highly effective last season. So far in 2011 the Panthers have put boot to ball fewer times (29) than any team other than the Cowboys and Roosters (both 28) and well behind league leaders St George Illawarra (43). If they do take the aerial route it could create problems for the Sharks – over the first two rounds they have been the worst team in the competition at defusing kicks, with just 50 per cent safely negotiated.

Danger Sign: When you see Michael Gordon and Lachlan Coote getting into position on the fifth tackle and the ball go to Luke Walsh, it means the Panthers are about to launch an aerial raid, and the Sharks’ backs had better be ready to outjump their opponents.

Plays To Watch: Luke Lewis running, dummying and taking on the line in attack; Gallen and Smith repeating their brutal defensive showing by monstering opposing forwards; Coote running through on Walsh kicks; Sharks livewire fullback Nathan Gardner creating havoc with his broken play running.

Where It Will Be Won: It’s a key in any game but discipline will be absolutely crucial here. Both teams showed last week what they are capable of when they cut down on the silly stuff, complete their sets, avoid boosting opponents out of trouble by giving away penalties and focus on marking up in defence.

Cronulla made 16 errors and missed a whopping 45 tackles against the Raiders in Round 1, but that was down to eight and 29 against the Dragons – not bad especially given the wet conditions. For the Panthers it was 19 errors and a massive 51 missed tackles in week one, with Luke Lewis the main culprit missing nine tackles. They completely turned it around against the Eels, making nine errors and missing just 22 tackles.

The stark lesson is: do the little things right and the results will follow.

The History: Played 78; Cronulla 39, Penrith 36, drawn 3. Although Cronulla have a slight edge overall, recent history favours the Panthers – they have won five of the past eight match-ups, including the past three in a row. They also have a better record at Centrebet Stadium, leading 22-14 in matches at their home ground.

In the last meeting between these two clubs the Panthers demolished the Sharks 50-12 at this ground in Round 26 last year.

Conclusion: While the Sharks were very impressive in downing the defending premiers last week, there are massive question marks over whether they can back it up for a second week. There was a lot to like about both these teams last week but the Sharks are not noted for either travelling well or stringing good performances together, which has us leaning towards the Panthers.

Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Phil Haines; Sideline Officials – Jason Walsh & Adam Gee; Video Ref – Bernard Sutton.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 5.30pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.

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