Cronulla come to the foot of the Mountains on Saturday night in a desperate mission to prove they are still a serious Finals contender.
Back-to-back losses to the Warriors and Sea Eagles has Craig Fitzgibbon’s team, once considered a top four candidate, hanging on to sixth place and in real danger of falling out of the top eight in the coming weeks.
Many would suggest the Sharks would prefer an easier task to get things back on track but I suspect Fitzgibbon has little trouble with having to face the Panthers at BlueBet Stadium at this crucial time of the season.
There’s no point in delaying the inevitable: to be the best you must beat the best, and now’s as good a time as any to meet the two-time Premiers on their home turf.
The 30-26 scoreline may suggest otherwise but the Sharks were pretty ordinary last weekend against the Sea Eagles. The late surge offered their fans some hope, but the game was long gone by half-time.
We know Cronulla are a dangerous team when they’re on. They lead the competition in line breaks and try assists this season, but their average completion rate of 76 per cent puts them in the same category as the Dragons, Tigers and Knights – and it’s just not good enough.
Penrith meanwhile have the best average completion rate in the competition at 82 per cent, and continue to run through oppositions and set up games to suit their own style with relative ease.
Ivan Cleary would probably have been disappointed to not see his side put on a few more tries against Canterbury last Sunday and he’d certainly be unhappy with the 18 points conceded, but he’d also know how rare it is to play games at this level and know from the second or third minute that you’re going to win comfortably.
Led by James Fisher-Harris and Moses Leota, Penrith’s forward pack shows no mercy to the opposition and it just allows Nathan Cleary so much time to do his thing.
Cleary had two try assists and two line break assists last week but it didn’t appear he came out of second gear. That’s the sign of a mighty good player who will likely produce his best football over this business end of the season.
The best thing to come out of last Sunday’s win was that the cohesion clearly hasn’t missed a beat across the park despite the Origin period, and Cleary’s hamstring injury. The key men all returned and produced solid performances, with the right players in the right kind of form at the perfect time of the year.
Coach Cleary has managed this part of the season perfectly, and his efforts will come to fruition via results over the next month when clashes against some of the competition’s better sides come along.
The Sharks obviously look a better team on paper than the Bulldogs did last weekend, but I honestly can’t see the result being all that much different.
Penrith are just better all over the park and Cronulla appear to be on a downward spiral, unable to capture the form that saw them finish in the top four last season and look a likely Premiership contender at various points earlier this year.
I’ve got no doubt Cronulla will come out firing and may even land some early blows given what’s on the line, but when all is said and done, I think this will be a pretty comfortable victory for the home team.
Tip: Panthers by 18.
Penrith and Cronulla play at BlueBet Stadium on Saturday, July 29 at 7.35pm. The game is live on Kayo and Fox Sports.
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor and Breaking News Reporter. He has more than 20 years experience as a journalist, working with some of Australia’s leading media organisations. In 2023, he was named Editor of the Year at the Mumbrella Publish Awards.