Round 14: Cronulla v Penrith preview
The Sharks will be looking to make it a shock two-straight defeats for the table-topping Panthers on Friday night.
Having looked unstoppable for so much of this season, Penrith were exposed without its Origin stars last week and Cronulla will take confidence from the Tigers' 26-6 victory.
The Sharks head into Friday's contest in stellar form having disposed of the Titans 38-10 before the bye.
While Penrith have major question marks over their fill-in halves, Shaun Johnson and Matt Moylan combined for their best performances of 2021 against the Gold Coast. The attack was crisp and executed to perfection - giving the outside backs early ball when needed or otherwise playing direct and through the middle when better suited.
Cronulla was embarrassed 48-0 by Penrith earlier this season and revenge will be on the cards when they face off again, this time with the Sharks eyeing a mid-season revival.
With no Origin representatives this period shapes as Cronulla's best chance to push up the ladder. Unlike Cronulla, Penrith has been hit hard by Origin with seven players selected and Apisai Koroisau the only one certain to back up after being selected as 18th man for the Blues. Otherwise, all six others (Nathan Cleary, Jarome Luai, Brian To'o, Liam Martin, Isaah Yeo and Kurt Capewell) have been named on an extended bench.
Panthers fans will be hopeful one of Cleary and Luai play after an unconvincing first outing from new pairing Matt Burton and Tyrone May. The latter was the more dominant playmaker, at least in the opening half, but lacked the tempo and variety in attack that had made Cleary the competition's best halfback. May was also heavily targeted in defence, forced into almost 40 tackles and tired easily as a result, unable to offer much in terms of generating genuine points-scoring opportunities.
Burton also had a mixed performance and coach Ivan Cleary said he "should be disappointed" with an inconsistent kicking game.
Penrith's last-tackle options exposed just how lost Burton and May looked leading the side around and will be a priority to fix in time for Friday.
The inclusion of Koroisau should help the Panthers play more direct and to their strengths.
Who to watch: Matt Moylan's last game against the Panthers did not go as planned, exposed in defence by Liam Martin as the Sharks fell to a 38-12 defeat. Before that Moylan had often been the one having the last laugh against his former teammates. The ex-Panther was 18th man in the earlier meeting between the two teams this season. Now though he shapes as Cronulla's likely halves partner for Nicho Hynes next year and instead of being on the outer is getting back to full fitness and thriving. Moylan was taking on the line with confidence against the Gold Coast a fortnight ago and has the attacking spark Penrith was craving last week with Cleary and Luai on Origin duty.
While Burton and May's performances warranted criticism last round, there is also something to be said about Viliame Kikau's inability to step up when the Panthers needed him most. In his defence, Penrith are overly-reliant on Kikau when looking for a back-up plan in attack. There is a reason for that though and at the moment Kikau just does not seem to take the ball up with the ferocity and intensity that a man of his size and skill should. If Penrith's Origin stars fail to back up again it will need Kikau to really stand tall and actually go after the ball instead of waiting for Burton to spread it his way. Burton himself will also need to better utilise Kikau, getting him running against the grain like Cleary does or using him as a decoy to give early ball to Stephen Crichton
My tip: If one of Cleary and Luai play this week the Panthers will win. The inclusion of Koroisau softens the blow regardless but on the current line-ups alone it is the Sharks who would have too many points. Cronulla by 8.