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Cronulla Sharks v Penrith Panthers
Toyota Stadium
Saturday, 7.30pm

Take two teams from opposite ends of the table, throw them on the higher-ranked team’s home ground and expect a thriller! On paper, this shouldn’t happen… but recent form suggests the Sharks-Panthers clash on Saturday night could be more exciting than most fans think.

In recent weeks the previously high-flying Cronulla side have plummeted down the table faster than a scrawny kid on a Wet’n’Wild water slide. Just three weeks ago the Sharks were in third place on the ladder – now, following a draw and two losses, they sit sixth and suddenly seem vulnerable.

The Panthers, meanwhile, haven’t enjoyed a season of success, fame or fortune. They have won just five of 18 matches, scoring an average of just 17 points per game. Even more worrying though, are rumours of unrest at the club following the appointment of coach Ivan Cleary at the start of the year… and the departures of long-serving fan-favourites Michael Gordon and Luke Lewis (ironically to Cronulla).

However, light can now be seen at the end of the tunnel for the Panthers… something they’ll be keen to stress after a physical 28-16 triumph over the Roosters last week. The Panthers scored their most points at home in well over a year in what was just their third win from the past 13 home fixtures. It came on the back of their most line-breaks (six) and offloads (14) since the early rounds of the season.

Cronulla have named both skipper Paul Gallen and Jeremy Smith in their squad for this week. Both, however, are by no means certainties to play – they will be monitored and assessed closely as the week progresses. Ricky Leutele comes in at centre for the injured Ben Pomeroy (groin), and John Williams holds his wing spot ahead of Isaac Gordon who makes way for Nathan Stapleton. Anthony Tupou shifts to the bench to accommodate Smith and Gallen, while Wade Graham has been rested (sternum). Cronulla have named a six-man bench, with two to be omitted. 

The Panthers have named Lachlan Coote at five-eighth after his promising performance at pivot against the Roosters last week, with Josh Mansour once again assuming the role a fullback. Travis Burns’ impending suspension has resulted in coach Cleary naming a five-man bench, with one of either Ryan Simpkins or Danny Galea likely to drop off.

Watch Out Sharks: Last week’s performance against the Raiders was Cronulla’s worst of 2012. At home and chasing a win to consolidate a top-four position, the Sharks were diabolical. Almost all of Cronulla’s 17 failed to get ‘up’ for the match and played significantly below their best. The lack of application and discipline allowed the Raiders to run riot – 49 missed tackles and 13 errors will do that to you! Of particular concern to the Sharks’ coaching staff would’ve been the application and willingness of their halves – combined, Todd Carney and Jeff Robson ran just five times for 30 metres, committing four errors and delivering poor service to their team-mates in the process.

Danger Sign: The hot-and-cold Panthers might just be on the boil once again. Penrith have sprinkled their disappointing season with occasional impressive efforts, including wins against the Dragons, Sea Eagles and Roosters (twice). The Sharks will be aware of this, as well as their own historically poor showing in the final weeks of the competition – in seasons 2010 and 2011, Cronulla won a combined total of just two of 12 matches after Round 20! Repeat that in 2012 and they’re goners.

Watch Out Panthers: Good-luck charms Gallen and Smith are likely to return for this clash. It’s a huge boost for the side not only on paper but because of the leadership qualities and experience both bring. With either Smith or Gallen in their team the Sharks haven’t lost a match since Round 13, when they were upset by the Eels in Monday Night Football.

Danger Sign: The Sharks haven’t lost more than two games back to back in 2012… and they’ll be desperate to ensure that statistic remains intact come Sunday morning. Cronulla have everything to play for in this match – a loss could see them slip to as low as seventh and end any hope of a top-four finish – and the Panthers, on just 14 points, really have no motivation.

Matthew Wright v Josh Mansour: Few would’ve predicted either to be at the back for their respective teams at this stage of the season, but after injuries and reshuffles that’s exactly how things have panned out. Wright, a former junior five-eighth, has proven reliable if unspectacular at No.1 since the long-term injury to regular Cronulla fullback Nathan Gardner.

Wright would be well advised to run lines off returning ball-playing back-rower Anthony Tupou, who has been starved of support since making his comeback. Mansour, meanwhile, is the Panthers’ surprise packet this season. A 2011 Rabbitoh who failed to make the grade at Redfern, Mansour moved to the foot of the mountains for an NRL debut and regular opportunity… one he got on the wing against the Storm in Round 9 this season. Since then he’s scored four tries… and shifted to the fullback position just last game where he broke six tackles. 

Where It Will Be Won: Cronulla’s back row – arguably the most aggressive and most capable in the competition – will have to stop Penrith’s centres… and vice versa. The Sharks’ backline is weakened following the injury to centre Ben Pomeroy, so expect Michael Jennings and Brad Tighe to demand lots of ball. Tighe grabbed a double against the Roosters last Sunday, the sixth time he’s done so since joining the Panthers (101 games). However, if Cronulla’s wide-running back-rowers – Gallen, Bukuya and Tupou – can nullify them and win battles themselves, Cronulla should have too much strength for the visitors. 

The History: Played 80; Sharks 41, Panthers 36, drawn 3. At Toyota Stadium, though, the ledger is firmly in the Sharks’ favour – the home side has won 24 matches compared to the Panthers’ 13. Penrith have, however, won five of their past eight games at Toyota Stadium.

Last Time They Met: Cronulla defeated the Panthers 15-14 at Centrebet Stadium in Round 5.

It could be argued the Panthers’ loss was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Up until their encounter, Penrith had begun season 2012 with two wins and two losses… until the Sharkies broke their heart with a one-point victory. They have not recovered since, winning just three of 14 games since.

Led by Jeremy Smith, Paul Gallen and new recruit Todd Carney, Cronulla grafted their way to an important victory on the back of some determined defence and intelligent attack. Carney might’ve booted a field-goal to secure victory with seven minutes remaining, but it was the team’s all-round performance that got them home.

Cronulla conceded just four penalties and committed eight errors in the match (a combined total of six offences less than their opponents) and kicked for almost 200 additional metres on the way to a famous away-from-home victory.

Match Officials: Gavin Badger and Steve Lyons; Sideline Officials: Jason Walsh and Brenden Wood; Video Referee: Russell Smith 

The Way We See It: If Jeremy Smith or Paul Gallen make it onto the field on Saturday night, they’ll be demanding a much higher intensity from their team… and much-improved performances from the past two weeks. On that basis, we predict the Sharks will bounce back with a win. However, if both players fail fitness tests, this match will be a toss-up, and a match in which the Panthers’ speedsters could wreak havoc. Sharks to win by 10… but we’re still not totally convinced.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 9.20pm.

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