Schick Hydro Preview: Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks v Penrith Panthers
Southern Cross Group Stadium
While the Brisbane Broncos have attracted most of the headlines this season, the Sharks are quietly going about their business to sit just one win behind last year's beaten grand finalists.
They were at their clinical best against the Raiders on their way to a handsome 40-16 win on the road and are a perfect 3-0 at home in 2016.
Penrith, meanwhile, sit just outside the top eight, but it could have been a very different story with a bit of luck. All of their matches have been in the balance in the final minutes, with the average margin in their seven games less than 3.5 points per game.
The Panthers recorded their biggest win of the year – albeit by four points – against the Roosters in miserable conditions on Monday night and are searching for back-to-back wins for the first time since rounds 16 and 17 last year.
Luke Lewis returns from a one game suspension, but has been named on the bench with Jayson Bukuya retaining his starting spot after a tremendous showing against the Raiders. The Panthers have named the same 17 that took care of the Roosters with Jeremy Latimore and Elijah Taylor once again named on an extended bench.
Watch out Sharks: The left boot of Jamie Soward has been on song in 2016 and was one of the keys to victory on Monday night. The Panthers halfback has amassed an NRL-best 92 kicks this season totalling 2373 metres. His four line dropouts late in the game against the Tricolours ultimately sealed the win for his side.
Watch out Panthers: No team has missed more tackles in 2016 than the Panthers and that is asking for trouble against a Cronulla side that boasts the third best attack in the competition. Penrith has missed 268 tackles this season at an average of just over 38 per game. Bryce Cartwright (30) and Jamie Soward (27) are in the top five worst offenders and will have their hands full against the likes of Ben Barba, Jack Bird and Valentine Holmes.
Key match-up: Andrew Fifita v Leilani Latu. Both men were a part of this year's Indigenous team for the annual NRL All Stars clash and have taken their representative form into the Telstra Premiership. Fifita ranks in the top 20 for offloads (13) and metres gained (1040) and is averaging just one missed tackle per game. Latu plays a different style to his counterpart, but has been just as effective. He made the most of his first starting role, churning out a career-best 221 metres from 21 powerful carries (he'd made 233 metres in the first four games combined). He also possesses plenty of finesse with the ball and is capable of putting teammate through holes.
The history: Played 95; Sharks 49, Panthers 43, Drawn 3. These two teams entered the competition together in 1967 with the Panthers winning the first seven meetings, but the wheel has gradually tuned in Cronulla's favour ever since. The Panthers won the only meeting between the sides in 2015, but the Sharks tasted victory in five of the six previous matches.
What are the odds: The Sharks have shortened from their opening price of $1.75 but as soon as the Panthers knocked off the Roosters, the money began to come for the outsiders with Sportsbet. One of the better betting games of the round with both sides backed to win 1-12. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Referee: Grant Atkins. Assistant referee: Alan Shortall. Sideline officials: Jason Walsh and Kasey Badger
Televised: Channel 9 – Live coverage from 3:30pm. Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 4pm.
The way we see it: The Sharks have been one of the most impressive sides in 2016 thanks to their perfect mix of flair and grit. They won't have it all their own way against a Penrith side that is more than capable of going toe-to-toe with the competition's heavyweights. Rain has been forecast, so don't expect an overly expansive game from either side. I'm tipping the Panthers to lead at some stage in the final 20 minutes, but a piece of Valentine Holmes brilliance will get the Sharks home in a tight one. Sharks by 4.