Round 7: Sharks v Panthers preview
Cronulla and Penrith meet for the first time since Moylan-Maloney swap.
Sharks five-eighth Matt Moylan will be looking to guide his team to victory on Sunday afternoon as he comes up against former club Penrith. The Panthers have been the clear winners from the highly-publicised player swap while Moylan has struggled for any real consistency in the Black, White and Blue. This is partially due to the fact that his position in the squad is still not confirmed, with Moylan switching between the fullback and five-eighth jerseys in his start to 2018. This week Moylan lines up in the No. 6 jersey and will no doubt be targeted by Penrith's rampaging big men. Speaking of big men - Cronulla don't have many left! Shane Flanagan's side finished last week's loss to the Dragons without Andrew Fifita, Wade Graham, Luke Lewis and Paul Gallen with the latter already ruled out from this Sunday's clash. The other three, however, are still chances of playing with a decision to be made after Saturday's captain's run. Cronulla have enjoyed recent success against the Mountain Men having won eight of their past 10 games against the club.
While Penrith may not have enjoyed many victories against the Sharks in recent history, they claimed a massive one in snatching James Maloney at the end of the 2017 season. Many doubted whether the NSW Origin representative still had it in him after an uninspiring 2017 campaign. Maloney has emphatically proven his critics wrong if you consider his current form for Penrith with the new halfback starring in the absence of Nathan Cleary. While missed tackles remain a concern for the former Shark, these have primarily come from rushing out in defence and putting on big hits, often forcing mistakes from opposition players. His discipline has also improved, with Maloney conceding just two penalties so far in 2018. Maloney's biggest asset, however, has been his running game and general leadership which has spearheaded the Panthers to win three-straight without Cleary. While Cronulla may have injury concerns, Penrith have some serious problems of their own with Josh Mansour, Waqa Blake and Sam McKendry all joining Cleary on the sideline while key depth options Tyrone May, Tim Browne and Tyrone Phillips are also unavailable. This has seen several players step up with Viliame Kikau, James Fisher-Harris and Tyrone Peachey in particular proving invaluable to Penrith's 5-1 start to the year. Penrith did receive some good news on the injury front this week with Dallin Watene-Zelezniak (jaw) returning to replace the injured Mansour.
Who to watch: For the home side, all eyes will undoubtedly be on Moylan, who has had an underwhelming start to his career in the Shire. While the former Panther has shown glimpses of his brilliance, he is yet to perform at a consistent basis. He will have to be even better this week if Cronulla lose their four best forwards as in that case it would be highly likely that Moylan would not be given the same platform to attack from. It would come as a surprise that Maloney has been so highly rated in comparison to Moylan this year given that the former has 30 more missed tackles to his name. However, this speaks to Maloney's dominance in attack with the two-time premiership winner leading Maloney in tries, try-assists, run metres, kicking metres, tackle busts and line breaks. If Moylan does not stand up this week I doubt Cronulla will have enough in attack to trouble the Panthers.
For the Panthers, James Fisher-Harris has been one of their most improved in 2018 and will likely be the enforcer tasked with putting pressure on former teammate Moylan this Sunday. ‘The Fish' was given a similar assignment earlier this year against Jonathan Thurston's Cowboys and was one of Penrith's best. Fisher-Harris' aggression in defence has been invaluable thus far and he will need to emulate this on Sunday afternoon if Fifita, Graham and Lewis do line up for the Sharks.
My tip: Even if Cronulla are boosted by the inclusion of Fifita, Graham and Lewis, the Panthers are superior to the Sharks in both attack (by eight points per game) and defence (by six points per game). Six plus eight equals fourteen. Panthers by 14.