Sharks edge Panthers in thriller
The Cronulla Sharks have held off the Penrith Panthers 20-18 in an incredible contest at Southern Cross Group Stadium to hand the visitors their third two point loss of the season.
A late length of the field try to Sharks winger Valentine Holmes looked to have sealed the deal, but an absurd try to James Fisher-Harris – his second of the evening – gave Jamie Soward a chance to level the scores with two minutes to play but his normally reliable left boot let him down.
The Panthers actually scored four tries to three but James Maloney's kicking proved the difference in a match that will go down as one of the games of the season.
Cronulla captain Paul Gallen ran for a whopping 242 metres and made 43 tackles while his opposite number Trent Merrin made 209 metres and came up with 40 tackles in a classic dual between two of the best locks in the game.
Former Panther Luke Lewis provided one of the highlights of the afternoon with a candidate for tackle of the year after he pulverised Matt Moylan with a crunching shot that sent the Penrith fullback flying into next week.
Boom rookie Te Maire Martin was forced from the field late in the first half with a suspected fractured shoulder after copping a hit on suspicion by Valentine Holmes, while Waqa Blake (arm) was an early casualty for the Panthers.
It only took two minutes for the game to come to life with Michael Ennis burrowing over from close range to get the Sharks on the board.
Penirth were lucky not to fall further behind when a magical offload from Wade Graham released the in-form Ben Barba, only for the cover defence to pull down Andrew Fifita short of the line.
The hosts extended their lead via a James Maloney penalty goal in the 17th minute as the game evolved into an end-to-end free-for-all with 25 offloads in the first half alone.
Penrith had plenty of possession and territory in the opening 40 minutes, but were repelled time and time again by some typically resolute Cronulla defence.
With points hard to come by, Maloney added another gift two points just before half time to push the lead out to eight at the break.
The Panthers made more offloads and more metres, and the Sharks were forced to make 18 extra tackles in the opening stanza, but the visitors' statistical dominance went unrewarded on the scoreboard.
That was until five minutes into the second half when Penrith's weight of possession and territory finally proved too much for Cronulla's brick wall defence.
Style and substance didn't work, so the Panthers turned to luck to get their first points, with a Jamie Soward bomb proving too much for Sosaia Feki, whose attempt to trap the ball bizarrely ended up in the hands of Matt Moylan to score a fortuitous four pointer.
Only a forward pass prevented the Panthers from going in again, before the Sharks turned down a kickable penalty goal that would have made it a four point game.
Instead of furthering their lead, the Sharks found themselves behind for the first time when Isaah Yeo ran onto a Moylan pass to score after 52 minutes.
That moment seemed to click the hosts into gear and they looked to have responded soon after, only for the Bunker to correctly disallow a try to Chad Townsend after ruling he had been in front of Jack Bird when the Sharks centre put in a perfectly weighted grubber.
Incensed by the decision, the Cronulla faithful would have been frothing at the mouth after the men in Eveleigh again ruled against their side just one minute later.
Panthers forward James Fisher-Harris looked to have lost the ball in tackle before a terrific exchange of passes saw the big man pick himself up and finish off the play he started 50 metres back downfield to score his first try in the NRL.
The Sharks were down but certainly not out, and hit back four minutes later through Maloney after his halves partner Chad Townsend dummied his way through before positioning his No.6 for his 50th try in first grade to tie up the game.
An early shift saw Holmes streak 70 metres to give his side the lead late in the game before Fisher-Harris's second capped off a movement that featured eight sets out of hands.
The game probably deserved to go to extra time, but Soward's late miss means the Sharks will head into next Sunday's clash against the Broncos on the back of five straight wins.
Sharks 20 (Michael Ennis, James Maloney, Valentine Holmes tries; James Maloney 4 goals) defeated Panthers 18 (James Fisher-Harris 2, Matt Moylan, Isaah Yeo tries; Jamie Soward 1 goals) at Southern Cross Group Stadium. Half-time: 8-0 Sharks. Crowd: 14,273. Injuries: Te Maire Martin (shoulder), Jayson Bukuya (concussion).