Full Time
5:30pm Sat July 23, 2022
Round 19 - BlueBet Stadium, Penrith - Crowd: 17426

Round 19: Panthers v Sharks preview

Top 4 battle as the Sharks travel to the foot of the mountains

It's a top four battle as the high flying (and well rested) Penrith Panthers go head to head with fellow top four compatriots the Cronulla Sharks at Bluebet Stadium on Saturday evening.

It's at the point where the writers are running out of superlatives to describe Penrith over the last three seasons. They've just been out of this world in terms of preparation and executing their game plans no matter the opposition that is placed in front of them. But, if this season's shown us anything, there are signs that Penrith can be beaten as evidenced by the Roosters a few weeks ago. It's been a challenging year for Ivan Cleary battling complications from a knee infection, but Penrith continue to perform in his absence this season which is a testament to their professionalism. 

Last week was really an outlier in Penrith's strong season hanging on against rivals the Wests Tigers. But it's of my firm belief that this tough victory will be of benefit to the guys that are regular first graders. As it showcased that even when they are off, they can grind out a hard fought victory. They leaned heavily on James Fisher-Harris, Villiame Kikau and the people's champ Dylan Edwards to get the victory. It's going to be a challenge to see how Penrith's NSW brigade respond after a disappointing result in the decider, the week off would've helped them immensely but their run into the finals is only getting tougher. All of the NSW stars rested last week are back and named to start, Matt Eisenhuth and Mitch Kenny go back to the bench after starting last weekend.

This week sees another tough test come their way in the shape of Cronulla. The Sharks have proven they can compete with the top clubs, going toe to toe with Melbourne earlier down in the fortress of AAMI Park. Craig Fitzgibbon has gotten a lot out of his brigade in his rookie season as coach, with the Sharks playing an exciting brand of attacking footy which has made Nicho Hynes one of the game's more attacking playmakers and rediscovered Matty Moylan's best form. 

Last weekend they took a tough road trip up north to Townsville and held on for a tough and tenacious victory over the most improved side in the competition. The key was definitely their forward brigade with Toby Rudolf and Dale Finucane playing key roles to power over the top of the opposition. This week though, the pack face their biggest test taking on a full strength Panthers pack with Martin and Yeo keen to put their Origin heartache behind them. Cam McInnes has proven to be an energiser bunny off the bench and will be going against Penrith's impact man Scott Sorensen. But the main task for Cronulla's pack is stopping Penrith's effective back three from gaining meters coming out of yardage, if they can contain Edwards, To'o and May it'll go a long way for victory. Sione Katoa hurt his shoulder in scoring the game sealing try last weekend, this is offset by the fact Siosifa Talakai will return after being rested last week, Mr Fix It Connor Tracey will slide onto the wing and continue his good form. Briton Nikora's return from suspension sees Teig Wilton revert to the bench and Jesse Colquhoun move to the reserves.

Last meeting: Round 14 2021 - Sharks 19 Panthers 18

Who to watch: Is there a more consistent fullback this season than Dylan Edwards. After being considered the ‘handbrake' of Penrith's attack in 2020-2021, the improvement in Dylan's game this season is second to none. His numbers in 2022 only speak for himself with the fullback averaging 220 meters a game as well as six try assists and six tackle breaks which has definitely placed him in the upper echelon of fullbacks in the NRL this season. Taking on more of a leadership role this season with a young backline, Edwards has stood up to the plate and is reaping the rewards of Penrith's strong season.

This is Cronulla's biggest test this season and it's going to show how far their rebuild has come. So if they want to win, it's going to have to come from Nicho Hynes. Hynes has been immense in his first season in the shire and wearing the number 7. It's safe to say that Nicho has smashed every expectation placed upon his shoulders scoring three tries, setting ten tries up as well as seventeen line-break assists. What's been the biggest strength has been his short kicking game, with the ability to place his kicks in the right place at the right time forcing 19 dropouts. Coming up against a strong Penrith defensive unit, Hynes' kicking game could be the difference for the black, white, and blue.

The favourite: Penrith (at home) are short-priced favourites with the bookies. Cronulla haven't won at BlueBet Stadium since 2018 when Matt Moylan returned home to stun his former team 24-12 in Round 18. Since then though, the Sharks haven't been able to win in Penrith (like most NRL clubs).

My tip: It's rare to see Penrith put together two bad performances in a row. But, with Cronulla in a good patch of form looking to cement a spot inside the top four it's going to be a close encounter. However, I'm of the opinion that Penrith are going to begin their charge to the finals on the right track and place one hand on the J.J. Giltinan Shield, but it won't be easy against a determined Cronulla outfit. Penrith by 10.