Panthers v Sharks: Schick Preview
Schick Hydro Preview: Penrith Panthers v Cronulla Sharks
Cronulla's 12-game winning streak has never been in more doubt.
Not because of the form of this week's opponents Penrith, but because the league-leading Sharks have been rewarded for their efforts with five New South Wales Origin call-ups.
Skipper Paul Gallen, five-eighth James Maloney, forwards Andrew Fifita and Wade Graham and young gun Jack Bird are all unavailable this week due to Origin selection.
While Valentine Holmes (hamstring) returns to at least fill Bird's void, coach Shane Flanagan has been forced to hand Fa'amanu Brown, Matt McIlwrick and Jesse Sene-Lefao their first NRL games of the year.
Former Ipswich Jets forward Kurt Capewell has also been named to make his NRL debut with the likes of Jayson Bukuya, Chris Heighington and Sam Tagataese all set to start.
Penrith have Josh Mansour and the recalled Matt Moylan on NSW Origin duty, with mid-season recruit Zak Hardaker initially named to start on the wing and Will Smith included on the bench.
Sam McKendry's (knee) season may be over with Leilani Latu set to start at prop and Suaia Matagi returning for Penrith on the bench.
Watch out Panthers: Fa'amanu Brown may not be a name you've heard in a while. It's fair enough too; he hasn't played in the NRL for almost two years. The 21-year-old has done a fine job with Newtown in the Intrust Super Premiership this year, guiding the Jets to their current top-four spot. Throw in the fact it's his first shot at the top grade since an ACL injury ruined his entire 2015 season and it looks like an exciting week beckons for the Samoan international.
Watch out Sharks: Moylan's late Origin recall for injured halfback Adam Reynolds will most likely present Hardaker his first opportunity at fullback in the NRL. The 24-year-old's decorated career in England includes a starring role at fullback in Leeds' premiership-winning campaign last year where he earned Man of Steel honours. It's only his second game in Australia so he may not set the world alight but it's an exciting prospect either way.
Key match-up: Nathan Cleary v Chad Townsend. Townsend's toughest challenge this season comes this weekend without the Sharks' five Origin representatives alongside him, including halves partner Maloney. Generally the Sharks halves share the workload (Townsend has contributed eight try assists, Maloney six) but with Brown joining the team for the first time this season it'll be up to Townsend to lead the club around. For the Panthers, Nathan Cleary continues to bloom as a young NRL playmaker and won't make Townsend's task any easier.
The history: Played 86; Panthers 38, Sharks 45, Drawn 3. Cronulla have won six of their past eight games against Penrith dating back to 2011 but their current winning streak almost didn't get off the ground the last time these two clubs played. The Sharks' 20-18 win back in Round 8 over the Panthers came very late as young Panthers back-rower James Fisher-Harris ran rampant.
What are the odds: Sportsbet customers aren't concerned about the Sharks missing key players to Origin. The money has come for Cronulla at a rate of five to one, with 80 per cent of the money invested in the line market going on Cronulla, so the Panthers aren't getting any support as favourites. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Referee: Jared Maxwell. Assistant Referee: Henry Perenara. Sideline Officials: Jason Walsh and Clayton Sharpe.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live coverage from 3:30pm; Fox Sports 1 – Live Coverage from 3:30pm.
The way we see it: If the Panthers weren't hurt by last week's loss to the Tigers, they should be. No team has had a better opportunity to sink the Sharks in their run of 12 wins than Penrith have here. The Sharks still have plenty of class across the park but the fact they'll be missing a core group of stars due to Origin will not help their cause. Penrith to end the Sharks' run of wins by 10 points.