Penrith v Cronulla preview

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Luke Lewis, Michael Gordon, Wade Graham – what do these three players have in common?

They’re all either former or current Penrith favourites that have been raided by this week’s opposition, the Cronulla Sharks. In fact, the Shire’s taste for Penrith meat has become so pronounced that the Panthers might just have a new contender for 2013 Rivalry Round fixtures.

2013 is a way off yet, though – for now, the Panthers have an opportunity to stick it to the Sharkies and potentially ruin their chances of a top four finish in 2012. Cronulla have had a terrible couple of weeks, taking just one point from three games against bottom-eight teams.

They’ll be desperate for a victory to keep their top-four hopes alive.

They’ve been without key enforcers Paul Gallen and Jeremy Smith during that period, and both have been named to play this weekend, making it an even tougher mountain for Penrith to climb.

Last week’s win over the Roosters, however, came with many positives for the Panthers, and they’ll enter this contest with renewed confidence and vigour.

It was a group of Penrith’s more maligned players that shone on Sunday; Luke Walsh, Brad Tighe and Michael Jennings were all outstanding, each of them turning in probably their strongest performance of the season in the face of mounting criticism.

But the most promising aspect of Sunday’s game was undoubtedly the shift of Lachlan Coote to five-eighth.

Ivan Cleary copped a lot of flack when he gave Coote the number one jersey ahead of the explosive Michael Gordon.

Even after Gordon’s injury, many fans – myself included – felt Coote did not fit the mould of the modern fullback. Despite his strengths – unrivalled support play, outstanding kick/chase, excellent ball skills – his kick returns rarely trouble the opposition, and his cover defence is lacking too.

This is because, quite simply, he lacks size and speed.

To see Coote slot in at five eighth was a breath of fresh air. He was able to display all the skills that make him so valuable, while Josh Mansour – the very definition of explosive – looked a far more dangerous prospect at fullback (though admittedly, still shaky under the high ball).

Additionally, Coote’s presence at pivot meant opposition defenders had an extra ball player to worry about, and Walsh was the benefactor, enjoying much more time with the ball than we’ve seen all year.

That was, however, only one match. The Roosters were not prepared for Coote’s last-minute positional change, and it will be interesting to see how he fairs against a Cronulla side with a week to prepare.

His defence in particular may come into question – expect the hard-running Sharks back rowers to target him on the flanks. Can the Panthers upset the Sharks and stick it to them for nabbing our favourite sons?

Tune in at 7.30pm Saturday night to find out.

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