After watching his team fall agonisingly short of producing the greatest comeback in finals history, Penrith coach Cameron Ciraldo told his players to use the disappointment of their 21-20 defeat to drive them to success next season – regardless of whether he is in charge.
Ciraldo has been the Panthers interim boss since Anthony Griffin was sensationally sacked just four weeks before the finals. He said after their elimination by Cronulla that he didn’t know what role he would have next season - but wanted to remain involved.
“Whatever my job title is I will be working my arse off to make sure we are not in this position again,” Ciraldo said. “I just wanted to make sure we got the job done tonight but I will get past that in the next few days and figure out what happens next.
“I have got another year to go on my contract so if I am coach, assistant coach, or water boy I don’t care. I just want to see the club be successful. I have been here six years now, I have seen where the club has come from to where it is now and I know we have got another couple of steps in us so I want to be a part of that.”
Despite trailing 18-2 at halftime, Ciraldo said there had been an air of confidence in the Penrith dressing room and they fought their way back to level at 20-20 before a Chad Townsend field goal secured the win for the Sharks.
“The feeling was really good at halftime,” he said. “I think everyone in the room thought we could win. We were really upbeat and I thought the way we started the second half was really good.”
If the Panthers had won they would have eclipsed Canterbury’s comeback from 16-0 down to beat Parramatta 28-16 in extra time during the 1998 finals series as the biggest fight back in NRL play-off history.
The loss left Ciraldo with mixed emotions as he believed Penrith were capable of repeating their win in Melbourne two weeks ago if they had been given the opportunity to play the 2017 premiers next Friday night.
“We were 18-0 down and it is really hard to fight back from that but everyone ripped in and turned the tables in the second half,” he said. “Cronulla don’t just let 18-0 leads slip easily so we had to go and do it. The emotions are disappointment and frustration but I am immensely proud.”
Asked whether he wanted the head coach job next season, Ciraldo said: “I haven’t thought far past what I just said to them then. No matter who is doing what or who is in what position the feeling they have now has to drive that group for the next 12 months and make sure we don’t end up in the same place”.
Meanwhile, Penrith playmaker James Maloney faces a nervous wait to learn if a cannonball tackle threatens his place in the Australian team for the October 13 Test against New Zealand after the Panthers were bundled out of the finals.
Maloney is expected to be named as the Kangaroos halfback for the first Test since Cooper Cronk announced his representative retirement after last December’s World Cup final but he will come under scrutiny from the NRL match review committee for a cannonball tackle on Sharks prop Matt Prior.
The NSW Origin star was taken to task by referee Ashley Klein after the 10th minute incident for driving into Prior’s leg below the knee while he was held in a tackle by other Panthers players.
“I have called held there and I believe that action is dangerous and unnecessary,” Klein told Maloney.
With Penrith’s season now finished, any suspension Maloney incurred would rule him out of Test selection.