Panthers v Sharks preview

Penrith Panthers v Cronulla Sharks
Centrebet Stadium
Saturday 5.30pm (AEDT)

Heritage Round features some scintillating match-ups including the Broncos-Dragons and the Storm-Knights, but overlook this clash at your peril! The Panthers are just starting to purr after an inconsistent start to the season while the Sharks have rediscovered their killer instinct and are reveling in rare back-to-back victories.

Last start Penrith proved too polished and powerful for the slipping Eels, demolishing them 39-6 in the home team’s 300th game at Parramatta Stadium. The Panthers got their claws into the Eels early, racing to a 23-0 lead at the break, before ripping them apart in the second half. Penrith showed particularly pleasing signs on the edges of the ruck – they busted the Eels open a total of nine times, crossing for seven tries. However, in the earlier rounds they struggled for consistency, starting the year with a loss against the Bulldogs, before walloping the Roosters in Round 2 and suffering a big loss to the Rabbitohs in Round 3. So far it’s been win-loss, win-loss for the Panthers – inconsistency they’ll want to iron out this week against Cronulla in front of their home fans who are desperate for a breakthrough victory.

So far in 2012 the Sharks have proven the league’s surprise packets, highlighted by their gutsy against-all-odds effort against the Cowboys in Townsville last weekend. Despite a battered, bruised and injured outfit, Cronulla uncharacteristically (of recent times, at least) found a way to win when they really should have lost. Nursing an injured fullback and several battered, bruised and sick players, the Sharks repelled wave after wave of Cowboys attack before seizing opportunities to record a courageous 20-14 win. It’s the Sharks’ first set of back-to-back of wins since Round 18, 2011, with Cronulla backing up from their Monday Night victory over the Sea Eagles before their win in Townsville. In fact, the Sharks could have been four from four, had it not been for some highly controversial decisions in Round 1 against the Tigers and some terrible executions in Round 2 against the Knights.

Both teams enter this clash, Penrith captain Luke Lewis’ 200th match, with very similar sides to last week – not surprising given their last-start victories. For the Panthers, coach Ivan Cleary has made just the one forced change, with the injured Nathan Smith making way for journeyman Cameron Ciraldo in the back row. Warriors recruit Matt Robinson has been named on a five-man bench.

Sharks coach Shane Flanagan has rejigged his forward pack following the return of former Wests Tiger Bryce Gibbs in the front row. Captain Paul Gallen shifts to lock, with Wade Graham pushed onto the bench. Ball-playing back-rower Anthony Tupou has been ruled out for the next 4-6 weeks with a thumb injury.

Watch Out Panthers: The Sharks are finally shedding their “one-man team” title… and it’s having a massive impact on the entire squad’s performance. In past years, the Sharks have relied almost solely on the performance of warhorse forward Paul Gallen. He has carried the offensive and defensive burden of the whole team on his shoulders, but no more! In 2012 and on the back of a public call from coach Flanagan, the entire Cronulla squad has stepped up their involvement and accountability – a reason why they lead the league in metres gained (1478 per match).

Danger Sign: The new teamwork at the Sharks is having a positive influence on everyone’s game – including, incredibly, the man they wanted to help the most. Now, with fellow forwards Ben Ross, Jeremy Smith and Jayson Bukuya sharing the workload, ‘Gal’ has taken his game to an even greater level and is getting even more involved – rival clubs have lots to fear! The NRL’s most destructive forward is the league’s greatest metre-eater, too – he has run for 853 metres at an average of 213 per game, coupled with a total of 99 hit-ups (ranked first), four line-break assists (equal sixth) and 11 offloads (second). Out of the road, Panthers!

Watch Out Sharks: The Panthers are on the prowl and following last week’s demolition of the Eels, they certainly look a team more than capable of making the finals. Against Parramatta it was Penrith’s attack that shone brightest – and their left-side offense, in particular, proved a giant threat. In the opening minutes, three right-to-left shifts had the Eels clutching at thin air, with Travis Burns, Lachlan Coote and Michael Jennings combining on several occasions to give the Panthers an unassailable advantage early on.

In ominous signs for the Sharks, all the Panthers’ backline stars broke the Eels’ defensive line (barring fullback Lachlan Coote), with wingers David Simmons and three-try hero Etuate Uaisele punching holes on more than one occasion.

Danger Sign: The Panthers’ backline is finding its voice, and conductor halfback Luke Walsh is showing why many have labeled him a maestro in the making. The diminutive No.7 is in fine form – especially with the boot. Expect Walsh, who has registered the third-most number of kicks in play so far this season (53), to isolate Sharks defenders through his short-kicking game. Cronulla is especially vulnerable defending kicks, defusing just 64 per cent (13th in the NRL). Expect Walsh to target fullback Nathan Gardner and Stewart Mills, who are particularly sketchy when on the end of grubber kicks, collecting just 40 and 67 per cent of kicks respectively.

Kevin Kingston v Isaac De Gois: The Penrith and Cronulla No.9s have plenty of responsibility in their teams. Kingston and De Gois aren’t merely tackling machines and dummy-half servants – both hookers provide spark and a foil to their halves combinations. It’s their tackle and line-busting potential – and their ability to set up scoring plays – that’ll worry both coaches. In 2012 Kingston has scored a try, broken the line once and run 17 times for 164 metres while De Gois also has a four-pointer, alongside two line-breaks and 19 runs for 141 metres. The key – the winning team’s No.9 will provide a larger spark out of dummy-half along with better service.

Where It Will Be Won: This match is effectively a battle between a brilliant backline and an almost unstoppable forward pack. Penrith’s outside backs are some of the most elusive and creative in the NRL – Cronulla’s centres and fringe defenders will need to keep close tabs on the likes of Jennings, Coote, Brad Tighe and co.

The Panthers, however, will also have their hands full – the Sharks pack, led by Gallen, Smith and Ross, is the best in the NRL at marching downfield. Whichever team better utilises its strength area and covers its weakness will win.

The History: Played 80: Sharks 40, Panthers 36, drawn 4. At Centrebet Stadium the Panthers have the upper hand, winning 22 compared to Cronulla’s 15. It’s two-all, however, in the past four meetings at the foot of the mountains.

The Last Time They Met: Round 3, 2011 was the most recent meeting of these teams – and it was all one-way traffic at Centrebet Stadium. On the back of an upset victory over the Dragons the week before, Cronulla belted Penrith 44-12 in a forgettable night for the home side. It was a rare attacking showcase from the Sharks, scoring seven tries to two in an unlikely victory. Now-ousted five-eighth Albert Kelly performed strongly for the visitors with two tries, as did fullback Nathan Gardner and former Panther Wade Graham. However, for the Sharks the sweet taste of victory was short lived – following the win at Penrith, the Sharks lost five consecutive matches.

Match Officials: Referees – Ashley Klein and Henry Perenara; Sideline Officials – Ricky MacFarlane and Gavin West; Video Referee – Phil Cooley.

The Way We See It: The Panthers, one loss away from rewriting their 20-year-old home-ground record losing streak, are no doubt out to impress their fans. That driving force, combined with their inconsistent win-loss start to 2012, should be enough motivation to perform strongly on Saturday night. Expect their brilliant backs, including Coote and Jennings, to have another big influence on this match. The Sharks and their stellar pack of forwards will be no pushovers though – every game they’ve played so far this season has been a dogfight to the end. Penrith by six.

Televised: Live – Fox Sports 2, 5.30pm