This clash between Penrith and Cronulla at Panthers Stadium on Friday night marks the first ‘Finals come early’ match of August – not in the likely quality of the contest but certainly in its high stakes importance.
In the wake of last week’s loss to the Bulldogs, this match will tell us just how much heart this Penrith team has left. To be honest, I’m scared to find out the answer.
After an incredible run of wins to get back into the top eight, all of the hard work was tossed aside last week by a performance that lacked energy and enthusiasm; allowing the Bulldogs to play spoiler at the back end of the season.
Penrith now find themselves outside the top eight, facing a Cronulla side that sits on the same amount of competition points (20) yet has a far superior for and against.
Let’s be serious – if Penrith lose this one, it’s essentially goodnight to the 2019 season. I can’t see Penrith winning three games on the road after another loss, so this is essentially Grand Final day for Ivan Cleary’s men. And the task is pretty tough, given the Sharks sit at almost full-strength after recovering from a mid-season lapse and are looking good at the right time of the season.
The task of winning this one has been made a little more difficult with the suspension of James Maloney for tripping, with little-known youngster Matt Burton set to partner Nathan Cleary in the halves.
Nathan Cleary. Let’s talk about Nathan Cleary.
I’ve felt through the last couple of seasons that his critics have been way too harsh. He’s 21-years-old and we’re expecting too much from him at his age; and silly comparisons to some of the greats of the game are unfair and foolish.
My mind hasn’t changed, but Cleary’s game does appear to have stagnated. At this time of the season, boasting two halves that were picked for NSW this year, Penrith fans deserve to expect better than what was dished out against the Bulldogs.
Cleary and Maloney appeared to have very few answers to what was an impressive Bulldogs’ defensive effort, but as much as we can praise the opposition, there is no excuse for Penrith to have only bagged one try against a side that has conceded 420 points this season and gave the Panthers plenty of opportunities.
Penrith had 57 per cent of possession and at one stage had a one-man advantage, and still couldn’t take control of the match. Every fan has a right to feel angry and rattled by the performance.
Perhaps Burton will add some much-needed spark, while Cleary may step up given he takes full control of the team in the absence of Maloney and his usual fill-in halves partner Jarome Luai. The return of Viliame Kikau is also a big plus.
I’m still willing to believe this Penrith side has some fire left in 2019; that the seven match winning streak was more than just fluke and luck; and that this squad will not simply let the opportunity of making the Finals slip through their fingers after doing such hard work through the middle part of the season.
Penrith haven’t beaten Cronulla since 2015. There could be no better time to break the drought than with your season on the line and your reputation as a quality football team in question.
Tip: Panthers by 4.
Penrith and Cronulla play at Panthers Stadium on Friday, August 9 at 7.55pm.
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor and Senior Writer. He has more than 15 years experience as a journalist, working with some of Australia’s leading media organisations.