Clinical Sharks outclass Panthers
Cronulla have made it four wins in a row with a comprehensive 28-2 victory over the Penrith Panthers at Pepper Stadium on Sunday.
It was a masterclass performance from the defending premiers after a torrid affair against Melbourne last week, with the Sharks running in five tries and keeping their opposition tryless for the second consecutive week.
Despite Shane Flanagan's men enjoying 54 percent of possession in the opening half, it was the Panthers who had all the attacking field position but came up with key errors on the back of some brutal defence led by former Panther Wade Graham.
Graham was a man on a mission against the club he once called home, while Sharks skipper Paul Gallen and prop-forward Andrew Fifita all got over the line late in the game.
Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary put Valentine Holmes and Kurt Capewell to the test under the high ball with three spiralling kicks in opening six minutes that were well diffused.
Tyrone Peachey then tested his return from a rib injury early when he pulled off a bell-ringing shot on Capewell that forced the ball loose and put Penrith on the attack in the early stages.
The Sharks returned serve with Graham putting a solid hit on Te Maire Martin but he was penalised shortly after for a facial with the Panthers opting for a two-point lead early through Cleary.
Cronulla responded in brilliant fashion off the back of two penalties conceded by the Panthers that enabled the visitors into rare field position.
Sharks halfback Chad Townsend caught Matt Moylan out of position and placed a well-crafted grubber into the in-goal for halves partner James Maloney to plant the ball down in the 17th minute.
After announcing earlier in the week he was Brisbane-bound next season, Sharks centre Jack Bird got over the line before the NRL bunker ruled Graham had obstructed James Fisher-Harris in the defensive line. Kiwi international Fisher-Harris made a welcome return on the right edge for Anthony Griffin and repaid the faith shown by the coach after in-form rookie Corey Harawira-Naira demoted to the Intrust Super Premiership.
The Sharks would have the final say before the break when Sosaia Feki crashed over in the corner after two no-look passes from Graham and centre partner Ricky Leutele in the lead-up allowed the former Tongan international to get on the outside of Dallin Watene-Zelezniak.
Penrith put themselves on the back foot to start the second half with Cleary throwing a forward pass and interchange utility Peta Hiku caught in possession on the last tackle.
Bird bounced back in the second half with a confirmed four-pointer when Townsend threw a dummy to find Luke Lewis on the outside of Cleary, before Lewis popped a ball for Bird who took Moylan over the line with him for the Sharks' third of the afternoon.
Martin had a chance to jag a four-pointer for the home side but the last pass was intercepted by a flying Leutele in a clear sign the game was not with Penrith.
The nail in the coffin for the Panthers came with 20 minutes remaining when Sharks skipper Paul Gallen was ruled to have got the ball down from a pet-play close to the line, with young hooker Jayden Brailey sending the former NSW skipper over.
Interchange forward Joseph Paulo came onto the field for Brailey and laid on a try for Fifita with the Australian international pouncing on a deft kick close to the line for his first try of his season.
It was the third loss on the trot for the Panthers who now face the Parramatta Eels next Saturday afternoon with Anthony Griffin's outfit left with all the work to do after just two wins and five losses to start the year.
Sharks 28 (Maloney, Feki, Bird, Gallen, Fifita tries; Maloney 4 goals) def. Panthers 2 (tries; Cleary goals) at Pepper Stadium. Half-time: Sharks 12-2. Crowd: 15,780.