Panthers v Sharks preview
Penrith Panthers v Cronulla Sharks
The Sydney cyclone might be over by Sunday, but that won't stop the Sharknado hitting the foot of the mountains with some real gusto.
Arguably the hottest team in the League could just about burn the welcome mat thrown out by these out-of-sorts Panthers, such is the rare form not seen by a Cronulla side in almost half a decade.
The Sharks have swallowed the past two premiers in their three-game winning streak, including a resounding 18-10 triumph over defending champions South Sydney in the Sydney basin that was Woolooware last Monday night.
Penrith, meanwhile, were gazumped 32-6 by the lowly Titans last week, a glaringly poisonous effort that punctuated a poor five-game stretch that's only netted them one win. To make matters worse, first-teamers Josh Mansour (knee) and Brent Kite (leg) have given the club more reason to invest in a private hospital.
To borrow a phrase from Ivan Cleary, it's been all "beers and skittles" out on the Shire, with James Segeyaro a possibility of joining Mansour and Kite on the sidelines due to an elbow injury. Rookie George Jennings comes in for Mansour, but Robert Jennings is outed for the returning Dean Whare. Third-year prop Sam Anderson also gets a run in place of Kite.
In better news for the hosts, Elijah Taylor and Lewis Brown are both a chance of returning on Sunday.
For Cronulla, skipper Paul Gallen has again been ruled out due to his hip injury, and he'll also miss next week's Test match against New Zealand. Sam Tagataese, named 18th man, is set to come into the side.
Watch Out Panthers: Second-rower Luke Lewis wound back the clock last week with a 117-metre, 41-tackle effort reminiscent of his trojan-horse days as skipper of the Panthers. But as is normally the case with the veteran Sharks forward, it was more the quality he was delivering than the quantity, with one inspiring kick-chase in particular turning momentum in their favour in stormy conditions last week.
Watch Out Sharks: In a season where the Panthers have used enough new faces to field an NFL team, rookie prop Reagan Campbell-Gillard has been a shining beacon of consistency. The towering 21-year-old has played every single game this year, and while he may not possess a sidestep or a round-the-corner offload, what he lacks in flair he more than makes up for in reliability. He's averaging a tick over 100 metres and 24 tackles a game, and hasn't made an error all year.
Key Match-Up: Tyrone Peachey v Ben Barba. They've been described as tempo players, the little men with the quick feet and twitchy hands that trampoline off the bench and sniff opportunities in and around the ruck. Neither have exactly caught fire over the first two months, but there's just too much talent in their wiry frames to rule out a game-changing impact.
The History: Played 84; Panthers 37, Sharks 44, drawn 3. It's been horrid reading for the mountain men against the Shirefolk, losing five of their past six encounters – three of them by four points or less. They've only sung the team song after a Sharks clash since 2010. Victory here, however, would equal the most number of wins over a single club since their inception in 1967.
What Are The Odds: Panthers $1.77 v Sharks $2.05. The Sharks opened as outsiders but could well be favourites by the time kick-off comes around judging by the mountain of money placed with Sportsbet. If Cronulla do get the points, punters seem fairly confident that they'll do it in a close one, with 1-12 the best backed margin. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Referee – Grant Atkins; Assistant Referee – Gavin Badger; Touch Judges – Russell Turner & Lawrence McDonell; Video Referees – Steve Chiddy & Luke Patten.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live from 2pm (AEST).
The Way We See It: On paper, it's a struggling top-four outfit against a surging top-eight one. But – shock, horror – games aren't played on paper, just ask the Rabbitohs. The form-line makes this arguably the easiest game to pick in the round. Sharks by 14.