Panthers face huge test against high flying Sharks

Jamie Soward gets a kick away against the Roosters. Photo: Megan Dunn
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Plenty of people have called Penrith’s hard fought 20-16 win over the Roosters on Monday night ‘ugly’, and while it may not have been the prettiest of performances, it was certainly a professional one.

In games like that, played in awful conditions, experience and professionalism mean a lot.

Halfback Jamie Soward took superb control of the contest, particularly in the final 10 minutes, and his kicking game helped to ensure the Panthers didn’t give the Roosters too many opportunities to grab the game at the death.

It’s the kind of experience that more than 200 senior games brings, but even Soward is still learning. When the Panthers lost in the final moments to the Bulldogs in round two, it came after Soward gifted the opposition a seven tackle set in the dying minutes. There was no sign of such play on Monday night and the fact that the Roosters were forced into seven goal line drop-outs shows just how accurate Penrith’s kicking game was.

The Panthers played to the conditions. Bryce Cartwright resisted the constant temptation to off-load, Soward kept plenty of his kicks low and Trent Merrin and Reagan Campbell-Gillard did the hard yards up the middle (the latter continuing to out-shine his more experienced front row partner in Sam McKendry).

Peta Hiku takes the ball up. Photo: Megan Dunn
Peta Hiku takes the ball up. Photo: Megan Dunn

And while Penrith’s final completion rate sat at 74 per cent courtesy of a few late errors, it hovered over 80 per cent for most of the night, which went a long way to securing victory.
Is improvement required to beat the high flying Sharks on Sunday? Absolutely.

Penrith missed a worrying 46 tackles on Monday night – more than any other team in round seven, including Newcastle who were spanked 53-0 by Brisbane. It is something that has been of concern for much of the season and the Panthers certainly need to find a way to tighten up the defensive unit, particularly in the middle of the park.

If the Panthers fail to contain players like Andrew Fifita, Wade Graham and Paul Gallen on Sunday, they could be in for a long afternoon. Peter Wallace also faces one of his biggest tests at dummy half – Michael Ennis is superb on the back of quick play-the-balls and we know how much he frustrates opposition hookers.

The Panthers must shut down Cronulla’s forward pack so attacking weapons like Ben Barba, Jack Bird and Valentine Holmes have their opportunities limited.

I’m expecting a pretty open game of footy – both sides like to throw the ball around if conditions are good, and you would expect the Panthers to chance their arm close to the line with Soward, Moylan and Cartwright all hitting their straps at a key time of the season.

Soward’s kicking game will again be a key component and if he manages to shut Cronulla’s chances down like he did against the Roosters last weekend, it’ll be hard for the home side to get a roll-on.

Waqa Blake. Photo: Megan Dunn
Waqa Blake. Photo: Megan Dunn

It was great to see Waqa Blake in open space on Monday night but even more impressive was his defence – the Roosters targeted his side of the field and he was forced to make 26 tackles, versus Peta Hiku who was kept reasonably quiet with just eight tackles made.

I’m expecting points galore on Sunday with Panthers fans likely to again be biting their nails (what’s left of them, anyway) in the final minutes.

Tip: Panthers by 1.

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