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The pre-season hype machine rolled into overdrive. We've had a better preparation. A complete pre-season. New purchases which will plug the deficiencies of seasons past. We've turned over a new leaf, we'll play more attractive football, and so on, and so forth. When it comes to generating truckloads of repetitive pre-season garble, Cronulla has it down pat.
The real question remains: can we turn all that self-inflating talk into actual results? This weekend, we'll be one step closer to finding out. The Panthers, the kings of the pre-season, rolling off a thorough demolition of the Roosters, make for a formidable opponent in anybody's books. Cronulla have emerged from the trials in fine form, too, although not with casualty. Jason Stevens, perhaps the most vital member of the Sharks' team line up, is out of the game with medial ligament damage. His replacement, Hutch Maiava, showed strong form in Cronulla's most recent trial, but needless to say, he's no Jason Stevens.
Then there's the matter of the halves combination. Just how well will the Brett Kimmorley / Adam Dykes thing work? Their counterparts, Craig Gower and Preston Campbell, have won a premiership together. They know each other inside out. Kimmorley and Dykes don't have such a luxury; this will be their first 'proper' match together.
The Panthers, of course, are not without flaws. Paul Franze is a defensive liability in the backline, and his wobbly flick pass is always susceptible to a loose hand knocking the ball down. He was floundering in Cronulla's Premier League team last season, unable to crack into a team who finished eighth on the table. That said, Penrith coach John Lang is a master of resurrecting a players career. Need proof? Look no further than Amos Roberts... Preston Campbell... Joe Galuvao... etc. etc. etc. Franze could be another project that Lang has tinkered with and perfected over the off season.
Having said all that, though, this Panthers team isn't quite the team they were last season. Ryan Girdler is gone, and with him goes a great deal of backline experience. Amos Roberts has shipped himself off to the highest bidder (who else but the Roosters?), taking with him a great wealth of try scoring flair. Martin Lang has retired, leaving Penrith without their kamikaze battering ram.
So, for Cronulla, this game is certainly winnable. It won't be an easy victory; not against a team with the likes of Craig Gower, Joel Clinton, Luke Priddis and so on, but it's not beyond the Sharks' reach. With some clever play, intelligent defence and occasional brilliance from the likes of David Peachey and Michael Sullivan, just anything can happen. And who knows, maybe Dykes and Kimmorley will pull through just beautifully.
Prediction: Sharks by 2