Sharks upset Panthers in Bathurst
A signature barnstorming performance from prop Andrew Fifita has helped Cronulla to an 18-16 upset win over Penrith at Carrington Park in Bathurst.
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Rookie winger Jacob Gagan also starred with two tries, as well as saving a certain four-pointer in the dying stages, to hand the Sharks just their fifth win of the season.
But it was a rampant Fifita, who set up two of his team's three tries, that stood out for a Cronulla side that consigned Penrith to consecutive defeats for the first time this year. By the end of the weekend, the Panthers could fall as low as fourth.
On a sunny afternoon in central-western NSW, the Sharks had the early running from the kick-off, enjoying six of the first seven sets of the game before opening the scoring through Gagan via the boot of halfback Jeff Robson in the 10th minute.
The early blow for the "home" side was exacerbated when, just 16 minutes into his comeback from a knee injury, skipper Peter Wallace limped off clutching his leg.
His exit looked to have immediately sparked the Panthers into action, with their first foray into enemy territory ending in rookie wingman in Dallin Watene-Zelezniak finishing off a slick, 18th-minute right side shift.
But the setback failed to deter the Sharks, who again went the aerial route in the 24th minute for second-rower Wade Graham to tap-back to put fullback Michael Gordon over in the corner for a 10-4 lead.
Cronulla were clearly outpointing their higher-ranked counterparts in the middle of the park, and their ascendency continued when Gordon burst into the backfield and looked likely to score before he was grassed by opposite Matt Moylan.
The Shiremen were in just one play later though, going back-to-back on a blindside call by prop-cum-halfback in Fifita, whose cutout pass led to Gagan's double.
But just as their opponents looked to be running away with the game, Penrith, having regained Wallace late in the half, cut into the deficit with a left-side swing that put Kevin Naiqama into the corner to bring the hosts back within four points at the break.
The Panthers then took the lead for the first time on yet another rehearsed play out of Ivan Cleary's playbook, Wallace and Moylan linking for the third time to send Whare over in the 51st minute.
But just as the Panthers seemed to have taken the ascendency, Cronulla twice denied Penrith on their own line on try-saving tackles from Ricky Leutele and Jeff Robson, before going coast-to-coast on a Fifita bust on halfway that ended in front-row speedster Sam Tagataese recapturing the lead.
The Sharks thought they had secured the win when yet another Robson cross field kick was tapped back by Gagan for Wright, but the referee ruled it was knock-on.
Penrith then went close to stealing it with a movement that twice went the width of the field only for Naiqama desperately taken into touch by Gagan, and the Sharks held on for one of their gustiest victories of the season.
Penrith 16 (Watene-Zelezniak, Naiqama, Whare tries; Soward 2 goals) defeated by Cronulla-Sutherland 18 (Gagan 2, Gordon, Tagataese tries; Gordon goal). Crowd: 8,824.