The Penrith Panthers travel to Bathurst this weekend to take on the Cronulla Sharks in what shapes as the match that could confirm the side will play finals football in 2014.
Despite sitting in second position on the ladder, the closeness of the NRL competition means anything could happen over the final weeks, and you would think Penrith needs at least 28 points to ensure they finish in the top eight. With 26 points already on the board, one more win should at least get that challenge out of the way – from there it’ll be all about securing a top four finish.
The Panthers lost their four point buffer on fourth place last weekend when they went down to a high-energy Roosters outfit at Allianz Stadium, and will be looking to put that match behind them as they head to Bathurst to seek revenge on Cronulla, who beat them in controversial circumstances at Remondis Stadium earlier this year.
The Roosters match was always going to be a tough ask for the Panthers – injury ravaged and with a short turnaround impacting their build-up, the team just didn’t look settled from the opening whistle. The kicking game was woeful at times and the side seemed to lack direction, something Ivan Cleary will look to address this week.
With Peter Wallace a big chance of returning against the Sharks, one of Cleary’s major headaches will be solved. Whilst Jamie Soward has been one of Penrith’s best players this season, he is disadvantaged greatly without Wallace alongside him and the reuniting of the pair is a big plus for the side.
Cronulla were pretty ordinary against the Cowboys last Friday night, and there’s a big chance the Panthers could put a huge score on them on Saturday – in fact, if Penrith are to lose this match it will be because they beat themselves.
With Todd Carney long gone and Paul Gallen under an injury cloud, plus everything else going on out Cronulla way at the moment, performing well on the football field seems to be something the Sharks can only do in patches. As the season wears on, it’ll only get worse.
But the Sharks will smell blood in the water and begin to circle if Penrith’s kicking game is as bad as it was against the Roosters last Saturday. If they see Brent Kite with the ball on the fifth tackle again, they may see an opportunity and wonder if Penrith has really learned anything from last weekend.
The Roosters managed to make big metres up the middle against the Panthers last Saturday and the Sharks are likely to take a similar approach. With a forward pack containing names like Andrew Fifita and Bryce Gibbs, Cronulla can certainly make metres quickly if things go their way. And you cannot deny how pumped up Luke Lewis and Wade Graham will be against their former club.
And if the Sharks are smart, they will follow the path of both the Roosters and the Broncos and target Jamie Soward’s defence – he missed seven tackles last weekend and made just six, proving a vulnerability in Penrith’s defensive line.
There’s a lot of ifs, buts and maybes when it comes to Cronulla this weekend but the bottom line is that if Penrith play their best football, they should give the Sharks a real spanking. If they play below their best, they may just sneak past the boys from the Shire. Anything other than that and Cronulla may cause a boilover.
Plenty of people have called Penrith ‘pretenders’ this season and performances like last Saturday’s against the Roosters only strengthen those claims.
If the Panthers are to brush off such a tag, then they need to win games like this one and win them big. There’s a big test against the Bulldogs coming up next weekend, but putting the cart before the horse is best avoided.
If Penrith are the real deal in this competition, they must win games like this.
Tip: Panthers by 20