Almanac Rugby League – NRL Round 8, 2016: Penrith regret poor goalkicking, Cronulla win five in a row

Cronulla Sharks 20  Penrith Panthers 18

4:00 pm, Sunday 24th April

Shark Park, Sydney

Paul Macadam

 

“This could be anything, could be anything”.

 

I like going to the ground via public transport. Being with your people, listening to their conversations. Determining the mood. I don’t share the bravado of this guy in front of me who predicts we’ll stuff them by 30, but after a night of watching Liverpool botch another two-goal lead and an afternoon of not being able to print match tickets from home, it’s comforting to hear.
“I really need to wee”.

History is in the air. It’s the day before ANZAC Day, on a weekend of half-truths where we remember them but not the causes they perished for. I’m expecting the worst from the pre-match ceremonies, though compared to Grand Final day’s Black Hawk theatrics (a logical extension of Australian nationalism’s rise since the 1990s), these are pretty reserved. That one yob who usually yells out has decided to stay home, and The Last Post is observed with perfect silence. Such a waste, such a waste…

Cronulla and Penrith both entered the competition in 1967. Their 50th seasons are a chance to look at what’s done and what’s to come. The absence of a premiership still hangs over the shire. More than hangs. It hurts. But in the unique position of owning their ground outright, with the ASADA scandal finally behind them, and a playing roster equal in strength to those led by John Lang, Cronulla are moving upwards. Penrith won their first title in 1991 and a second in 2003, the latter inspired by Scott Sattler’s famous tackle on Todd Byrne. Since then the Panthers have been in a near-perpetual state of rebuilding; the victim of policies which encourage clubs to produce their own players without offering any compensation when young prospects are snapped up by those with greater resources. Two traditional underdogs. Two competition points.

The Sharks get the early try I always whinge about them not getting; Ennis diving over from dummy-half. It’s soft, but it’s crucial to know how to score soft tries in preparation for those days when your attacking performance is 10 per cent down. Days like this one. Cronulla look listless when they have the ball, which isn’t often. At least 25 of the first 40 minutes are spent in Penrith’s attacking half, but the Sharks hang on and hold up and push back and hang on and on and on. There’s needle in this, too. While Maloney prepares a line drop-out, a Panthers fan near me waits for a lull in stadium noise, points at Gallen, and makes a loud drug cheat accusation. Gallen, whom you could accuse of many things but never of avoiding confrontation, fires back with a line I don’t hear but can probably guess. Lewis clatters Moylan with a tackle that says you are not scoring today. Handbags follow, and Ennis is penalised for little more than regulation post-mistake hair-ruffling. A case of reputation coming back to bite, perhaps. They survive once again. Thanks to a pair of penalty goals, Cronulla have an implausible 8-0 lead.

What usually happens next is the trailing team feels deflated by their failure to turn dominance into points. The leading team spring into life, and stuff them by 30. Yet neither Cronulla nor Penrith are Usually clubs.  Five after the break. Soward skies the kind of kick fullbacks and wingers dread, Feki forgets which code he’s playing, attempts to trap the ball on his foot, the ball loops with comical slowness into Moylan’s arms, and the game is back on. Honestly their next two tries are a bit of a blur; all I’m sure of is that neither were converted and this match is slipping like countless others before. Standing 110 metres away only deepens the sense of helplessness.

But these Sharks. With not much happening, Townsend decides he’s just going to run at them. At them and through them. Maloney is there in support, of course he’s there, Maloney under the posts. 14-all with a quarter hour to play. As I observed after round 2, new interchange laws have enhanced the value of a fast back taking on a fatigued forward pack. By this stage, Penrith only have two fit substitutes to choose from, and it’s mad how many match results are influenced by the NRL’s anachronistic fixation on the 17-man squad. They look goosed.

Cronulla have the next two attacking sets yet can’t score points from either. On 72, and with two tackles in hand, Moylan seeks a repeat set from 40 metres out. A low-percentage play. It doesn’t work. There’s this myth about kicking a field goal too early; that with 15 or 12 minutes left, a one-point lead is worse for a team’s mentality than level scores. Cronulla’s round 5 win over the Gold Coast questioned that received wisdom, and now it costs the Panthers badly.

A few moments later, the new Sharks spread the ball wide to Holmes, who casually sprints 80 metres. Valentine in his glorious pink boots (though with Friday morning’s sad news in mind, I wish they were purple). That should be the match wrapped up, but it’s not, because Penrith are absolutely bananas. A long, frantic last-tackle play concludes with Fisher-Harris diving over near the right corner. Soward nails this conversion if the year is 2010. It’s not, though, and he misses. The Sharks handle the final two minutes without further insanity.

So we have the rather union-ish scenario of a team scoring four tries to three, yet losing. Not that the winners mind. The Shark Park speakers blast “Up Up Cronulla” twice as per the victory tradition, then “Raspberry Beret” as I’m leaving the ground. Not having it that the Proven-Summons trophy is guaranteed to stay in Queensland. Whisper it, but Cronulla are challenging for the premiership. Five wins in a row. Bring on your Brisbane.

 

CRONULLA SHARKS 20 (Michael Ennis, James Maloney, Valentine Holmes tries, Maloney 4 goals) defeated PENRITH PANTHERS 18 (Jake Fisher-Harris 2, Matt Moylan, Isaah Yeo tries, Jamie Soward 1 goal). Crowd: 14 273.

 

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About Paul Macadam

Songwriter under my own name, drummer for Library Siesta. Newly ecstatic Cronulla tragic who also loves Liverpool because life wasn't meant to be easy. Too slow for the wing, too skinny for the second row.

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