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Sharks v Panthers
Remondis Stadium
Sunday, 2pm

Of all the games in Round 20, the match-up between the Sharks and Panthers holds the most significant influence on the final make-up of the top eight.

The Sharks, after last week’s 40-zip thrashing at the hands of the in-form Roosters, have slid to seventh on the table. Still, it’s a fair effort for a team struggling to deal with the ongoing ASADA investigation and the related drama and innuendo. Their 2013 season has been one of stoic determination – even after a terrible two-and-five start to the year, they’ve battled hard to record nine victories from 17 matches, including wins against the Warriors (28-4), Knights (21-20) and Rabbitohs (14-12). Up until recently they were cemented in the top eight, but a loss this Sunday to Penrith could see them slide to as low as 11th.

The Panthers, meanwhile, have shown similar determination and resilience in 2013 after starting the year with just one victory from their opening six matches. Since then, though, things have been much more positive, so much so that people at the foot of the mountains are starting to get just a little excited. Since Round 7, Penrith have lost just four of their 11 matches, including a 32-14 defeat at home last week to the Knights. Sitting in ninth position on the ladder, a win at Remondis Stadium on Sunday would shoot them into the top eight and, with a far superior for-and-against record, above the Sharks, too.

Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan has made a number of significant changes to the side that was ripped apart by the Roosters. The Sharks welcome back halfback Jeff Robson, back-rower and stand-in captain Wade Graham and centre Ben Pomeroy, with Stewart Mills and Mark Taufua named in jumpers 18 and 19. Chad Townsend has been named in the NSW Cup side. Still, the Sharks remain injury-depleted, with regular captain Paul Gallen, back-rowers Luke Lewis and Anthony Tupou, and backs Beau Ryan and Ricky Leutele due to make returns in the coming weeks.

For the Panthers, Lewis Brown moves to centre to replace Wes Naiqama (dropped to Windsor), Jeremy Latimore moves into the starting side to replace the suspended Mose Masoe, and Sika Manu returns to the NRL after a lay-off due to a thumb injury. Promising forward Sam Anderson has been named on the bench to take part in just his third NRL match after playing in Rounds 9 and 10. Brad Tighe, Nigel Plum, Matt Robinson, Sam McKendry, Blake Austin and Lachlan Coote remain on the sidelines due to injury.

Watch Out Sharks: Right on cue, last week Cronulla put in their worst performance of the season – a 40-point defeat to the Roosters. It’s been a similar story in years past, too – the Sharks quite literally saving their worst for last. In 2012 Flanagan’s brigade won just two matches from Round 19 onwards, and during the same period in 2011 they didn’t even win a game! The coach reckons he’s got the slide under control and is adamant it won’t happen this season… but the proof is in the pudding.

Watch Out Panthers: When they’re away from home, the Panthers quite often turn into another team altogether. Even though they’ve sliced and diced the Raiders, Storm and Warriors at home, don’t expect them to be able to flick form on like a light switch here in the Shire. In fact, away from the foot of the mountains this year, they’ve won just three games – against the lowly Dragons, Titans and Eels. On the road, the Panthers are ranked somewhere between ordinary and awful – they average just 14.75 points per game, score two-and-a-quarter fewer tries per match and run for 180 fewer metres per match. Home sweet home, eh?

Plays To Watch: Keep an eye on the creative couple of Todd Carney and Luke Walsh. They’re the two players who yank the reins on their team’s troops – and they’re the two who’ll go for the jugular when the time is right. Look for Carney to link with fullback Michael Gordon, while Walsh has more options in Matt Moylan, James Roberts and, particularly from kicks, David Simmons. When they do find their man, chances are they’ll find their team some points, too.

Key Match-Up: The battle of current NSW front-rower Andrew Fifita against former Blues prop Tim Grant should be a beauty. Fifita, in career-best form in recent weeks (averaging 146 metres per game, with a total of 64 tackle-breaks, five line-breaks and six tries this season) will look for Grant, who some believe was unlucky to be overlooked for Blues duty this year. The Penrith prop has also recorded strong figures this season, even if he hasn’t been as explosive – he’s averaging 134 metres per game but has recorded just nine tackle-breaks in 15 matches. If these two behemoths collide at full speed on Sunday, Remondis could crumble.

Where It Will Be Won: Desperation. In times when two fairly evenly matched teams clash – and with so much at stake – the ‘one-per-centers’ usually prove the difference at the end of the 80 minutes. Diving on loose balls; making last-ditch tackles; putting in extra efforts; keeping the team ‘up’ – they’ll all prove crucial to the outcome of this clash. It should prove a beauty, too.

The History: Played 81; Cronulla 41, Penrith 37, drawn 3. At Remondis Stadium (Cronulla’s newly sponsored and renamed home ground), the Sharks hold a sizeable advantage, victorious in 24 of 41 clashes, with three draws.

Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – Dave Munro & Jason Walsh; Video Referees – Paul Mellor & Reece Williams.

NRL Live 2013 App: Gives you access to every NRL game this season on your iPhone, iPad or Android smartphone as it’s being broadcast on TV, with up to six live games each week, including the Sharks v Panthers clash. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.

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Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm (NSW), delayed 9.30pm (Qld).

Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 2pm.

The Way We See It: At the end of this match one side will consolidate a position in the top eight and one will be contemplating the possibility of a year off finals football. For that very reason – with their seasons on the line – we reckon this match will go down to the wire – and prove a rip-snorting bobby-dazzler. (Six of the past nine clashes at the venue between these two teams have been decided by single figures, too.) We’ll say Penrith by 1 point, with Walsh to kick his fourth field goal of the season.

*Statistics: NRL Stats.

Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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