The Penrith Panthers had the perfect opportunity to end the Cronulla Sharks' winning run but ended up soundly beaten 26-10 at Pepper Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
Defence wins games
Ben Barba was the toast of the NRL once again following his brace of tries scored against the Panthers, but Sharks coach Shane Flanagan pinpointed a phase earlier on in proceedings which he said proved crucial to Cronulla maintaining their winning run. For a 10-minute period, the Panthers hammered Cronulla on their tryline and even without their New South Wales Origin quintet the Sharks showed why they're leading the NRL Telstra Premiership.
"I was really pleased with the way we defended in the first half, and that got us the win I believe. We didn't have much possession but we hung in there and were given our opportunities which we made the most of in the second half," Flanagan said.
"Defending our try line in the first half set up the win for us. It wasn't about how many points we scored. I just thought if we got off to a good start with a bit of a new team it would hand confidence to those players who haven't been around week-in, week-out."
Fresh quintet stand tall
Matt McIlwrick, Jesse Sene-Lefao, Fa'amanu Brown and Mitch Brown have all played their fair share of NRL football but offered their first contribution to the Sharks' winning season in a massive way. Throw in NRL debutant Kurt Capewell's enormous influence off the bench and you can't blame Flanagan for saying the team's replacements "exceeded my expectations".
"I recruited all these players so I had all the confidence that they're quality players. It's been hard because some of them are knocking on my office door week after week asking 'when am I going to get my chance?'" Flanagan said.
"We haven't had any injuries, touch wood, but they have always been ready to play. They've trained really hard for six months waiting for this opportunity and they got it."
Hardaker's tough NRL initiation
Former Leeds Rhino and Super League Man of Steel Zak Hardaker played his first full game in the NRL and it certainly wasn't his best, with even Panthers coach Anthony Griffin admitting he "did it tough".
Hardaker missed more tackles than he made as rival fullback Barba made life difficult for him on several occasions. A hospital pass to winger Dylan Edwards on a kick return which left the debutant smothered by Sharks veteran Luke Lewis wasn't pretty either.
He may have conquered the Super League, but the English international's performance showed once again that the NRL is a big step up.
Bryce Cartwright is not a five-eighth
The Sharks' first half defensive performance was certainly helped by Bryce Cartwright's inexperience in the halves. The usual back-rower struggled to take advantage of the Panthers' dominant field position and the Panthers failed to capitalise as a result.
The 21-year-old was let done by the fundamentals, particularly when it came to straightening the Panthers' attack. Even with a whopping 33 tackles spent inside the opposition 20 metres in the first half (compared to the Sharks' three), the Panthers weren't once in the lead.
Sharks end a different streak
In what was positive day for the club overall, the Sharks in the Holden Cup were able to put the Panthers' unbelievable 13-game winning streak to bed after playing out a fantastic 34-all draw.
The Panthers have had nothing but wins since their Round 1 loss to the Raiders but with 21 players unavailable for an assortment of reasons – under-20s Origin, Australian Schoolboys, NSW Cup, injuries and in Nathan Cleary's case, the NRL – the longest streak in Holden Cup history was ended by the sixth-placed Sharks.