Penrith Panthers 2 Cronulla Sharks 28
4:00 pm, Sunday 16th April
Penrith Stadium, Sydney
The past fortnight has seen Penrith thoroughly outclassed by the teams who contested last year’s grand final, and showing why they won’t feature in this year’s edition. The past fortnight has seen Cronulla remind the league why they won the last, and why they’re a decent chance of doing so again.
Just as Shane Flanagan prefers his teams to work their way into a season, he’s usually content to let them work their way into a match. Fast starts were rare last year, and that’s not suddenly set to change. Penrith technically win the first 15 minutes; sprinting out of the line to make big hits, one of which, on makeshift winger Kurt Capewell, leads to the home side’s only points of the match. But they can’t crack the Cronulla wall. The Sharks essentially ask their opponents what’s up their sleeve aside from madcap second-phase play, and the answer turns out to be… not much. Holmes and the wingers handle Cleary’s bombs without incident.
Here’s the difference. Te Maire Martin’s kick is too shallow to force a dropout. Matt Moylan places a limp chip straight to Feki in a situation where he shouldn’t be kicking at all. Townsend kicks in-goal, Maloney reads his mind. First four-pointer to the Sharks. With their first proper opportunity. The benches. Another difference. In 126 combined minutes, the Penrith bench contributes 200 metres. Cronulla? 342 in 118 minutes. The second try is what kills them. Just before the break. One tackle earlier, a fresh Jason Bukuya bulldozes his way within ten of the line. An easy try in the end, but it doesn’t happen without that run.
There are YouTube channels of dubious legality that upload entire NRL matches for free, without the ad breaks. I’d link, but nobody likes a snitch. You’ll find them if you look. In the time where the ads would normally be, an off-camera voice demands higher standards. “We’ve had f*** all ball down their end, and scored twice. We’ve gotta focus on our completions”. Jack Bird goes over. Won’t be here next year, though won’t be lacking for commitment. At 16-2, the game is all but won. Graham crushes that thought before it can germinate. “Listen. This is a f***ing big ten minutes”. He puts words into action by bodying anyone who dares to run at him. Townsend’s boots further turn the screw.
Gallen’s try benefits from an iffy decision, though all it does is put the Panthers out of their misery. They’re in the unique position of being an attack-minded team incapable of scoring tries, other than when playing the dross. Fanciful even in February, shouts about Penrith being premiership favourites now sound ridiculous. Big fan of Joseph Paulo sneakily becoming the greatest grubber kicker of all time, by the way. Put one on a plate for the captain in Canberra, and now he’s at it again with Fifita. Opponents will soon get wise, but for now it’s dead effective and very funny.
Nearly three hours since we conceded a try; more than a month since we dropped a match. Back in the top four where we belong. If Cronulla don’t retain the Provan-Summons trophy, it’ll take a tremendously strong team to deny them. These are the days people say ‘those were the days’ about. Drink it in. The Sharks are on the march.
Cronulla Sharks 28 (James Maloney, Sosaia Feki, Jack Bird, Paul Gallen, Andrew Fifita tries, Maloney 4 goals) defeated Penrith Panthers 2 (Nathan Cleary goal).