When a cool, calm and collected Nathan Cleary landed a field goal to edge Penrith in front against the Tigers last weekend with seven minutes on the clock, you just knew the visitors were going to get home.
The Panthers have backed their defence all season – especially since the resumption of the competition – and no matter what the Tigers threw at them in the last frantic stanza, Penrith were going to hang on.
In the end, Api Koroisau and Dylan Edwards combined for a brilliant try to give Ivan Cleary more breathing space up in the coach’s box, and send Tigers fans – one in particular – home angry.
This is a well drilled footy side slowly starting to make the rest of the rugby league world stand up and take notice. The good thing is the team still appears far from its best, and again Cleary gets to work on the required improvement within a winning environment.
Penrith haven’t conceded more than two tries in a game since the Round 5 defeat to Parramatta, and the toughness in defence is what will ensure the Panthers go further than most expected them to this season.
That defence will get a huge test on Saturday afternoon against a Cronulla side that has scored plenty of points over the past fortnight – clocking up 40 points two weeks in a row against the Titans and Sea Eagles.
Things have really started to turn around for the boys from the Shire after that shaky performance against the Bulldogs three weeks ago, and after many wrote them off the side now sits in seventh spot on the ladder with four wins and four losses approaching the mid-way point of the reduced season.
The Sharks have lost Matt Moylan to a hamstring injury for this one, but there’s still plenty of points in this side – and many of them come from an unlikely source. It’s Cronulla’s forwards that often get over the line, and while their backline still has plenty of threats, Penrith will have to ensure their middle field toughness is strong.
Brian To’o has been forced out of this match with an ankle injury, but coach Cleary has a ready-made solution with Brent Naden named on the wing, allowing for Dean Whare’s return from a toe injury.
I’m really looking forward to the battle of the hookers in this one – Apisai Koroisau is providing the energy and spark Penrith lacked out of dummy half last season, while Blayke Brailey is playing good footy for Cronulla and has scored in their last two matches.
While both these sides have proven they can score points when required, I’m predicting this will be a game won on defence, with a low scoreline likely.
Whoever can gain the ascendancy up the middle should walk away with the chocolates – and less bruises.
Get ready for another wild ride Panthers fans – I doubt the result of this one will be known until the final minutes, or perhaps not until Golden Point splits them.
Tip: Panthers by 1.
The Panthers and Sharks do battle at Kogarah Oval on Saturday, July 11 at 3pm.
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.