Top four battle as business end of the season gets underway

Viliame Kikau. Photo: NRL Images.
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Penrith has been so dominant this year that it’s sometimes easy to forget about other sides that have improved immensely this season to put themselves in Premiership contention.

There is no doubt that one of those sides is the Cronulla Sharks, who under coach Craig Fitzgibbon have gone from a side that fell out of the top eight at the back end of the season in 2021, to one sitting in third spot as the business end of the year gets underway.

Fitzgibbon is getting the best out of Matt Moylan at five-eighth, helped by Nicho Hynes who has made a successful transition to a game manager at halfback; still with plenty to learn but doing enough to ensure the Sharks win more games than they lose.

Hynes was quoted recently as saying he learned a lot from Nathan Cleary in Blues camp; he’ll get to put that to the test when he comes up against his Origin team mate on Saturday evening.

Taylan May. Photo: NRL Images.

Hynes leads the competition in Linebreak Assists, perhaps not a surprise when you consider how much expansive play the Sharks manage to produce in their games; it’s an exciting brand of footy and one that has seen them become a real contender this season.

This Saturday’s twilight NRL game sees the Sharks face their biggest test yet: a Penrith team that has come through the Origin period unbeaten, with their representative stars back in action after being rested last weekend.

And just like he did after Origin I when the Panthers faced Newcastle, I’d expect Nathan Cleary to respond to the Origin decider loss in pretty strong fashion this weekend.

Avoiding Origin talk would have been the mission of the week but for a competitor like Cleary, there’s no question it’ll be burning in the back of his mind – solved only by putting on the boots and going out there to confront 80 minutes again.

You see when the likes of Cleary and Jarome Luai are criticised, they respond not by sulking or going into their shell, but by producing standout games that reminds us all of why they wore the sky blue in the first place.

Dylan Edwards and Nathan Cleary. Photo: NRL Images.

And certainly you’d expect most of Penrith’s Origin players to have a bit of extra gusto in them heading into this one; as they work to clear the Origin cobwebs and get on with the job for the Panthers.

Managing that process would have been a big part of Ivan Cleary’s week, not that he had too much time to drill down on it. He let the Origin players have the first half of the week off, all part of handling the workload of his biggest assets during this period.

Cleary would not want to dwell on what happened at Origin nor use it as motivation to do better for Penrith, but he also knows what makes his players tick. There’s certain individuals who will use the Origin disappointment as motivation, others who would rather forget about it. It is the latter Cleary must focus on most, to ensure they don’t get bogged down in all the Origin aftermath.

You can’t read too much into Penrith’s form last weekend. A narrow win over the Tigers was impressive under the circumstances, but the game is best forgotten. There was very little to learn from it.

Izack Tago in action against the Tigers. Photo: NRL Images.

Cronulla has been dealt a major blow with their try scoring machine Sione Katoa ruled out for the rest of the season, with Connor Tracey taking his place on the wing.

With Cleary and co back on deck, the Panthers should return to the side we know and love this weekend – and I’d expect a strong kicking game will ensure the home team dominates field position and gets the job done.

Regardless, this is a big test of where Penrith are at – their first match against a top eight side since they played the Cowboys back in late May. Whatever the result, we’ll learn plenty from it.

Tip: Panthers by 12.

Penrith and Cronulla play at BlueBet Stadium on Saturday, July 23 at 5.30pm.

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