Only four teams are left remaining in the premiership race, with an ancient and a modern rivalry to highlight this weekend’s preliminary final matches.
The Cronulla Sharks will be out to bounce back in the second week of the NRL finals when they take on the Penrith Panthers at Allianz Stadium.
Cronulla came so close yet finished so far away last week as they fell to the Sydney Roosters at the same venue.
Botched tries, missed opportunities and a general lack of concentration came back to haunt the Sharks, with the final scoreline reading 21-12.
The Sharks also could have blamed some contentious refereeing decisions, but at the end of the day, they came up well short and will be disappointed they have to back up and try to turn things around this weekend to keep their season alive.
That’s a definite possibility, but the last thing they will be able to do coming into this game is take the Panthers lightly.
While Penrith have had off-field problems, form issues on the field, a chance of coach and a mountain of injuries to deal with, they seem to be hitting their stride at just the right time.
After a victory over the Melbourne Storm in the final week of the regular season, they turned a deficit into a big victory over the stumbling Warriors last week in the first elimination final.
It meant they bought themselves an extra week, but in doing so, found the form which they carried earlier in the season – the sort of form which at one point had them at the top of the ladder.
Like the Dragons dramatic drop off, it seems an age ago they were in such a position, but they find themselves coming into this game on the back of two straight wins and with what should be plenty of confidence under the belt.
The biggest factor to make note of in history between the two sides is the Sharks dominance in recent times, where they have won all of the last five meetings against Penrith and, stretching back even further, eight of the last nine.
The Sharks do have the historical advantage, but without a previous meeting in the finals, there is no obvious hoodoo to go on long-term. Only that recent history.
Overall record: Played 90, Sharks 49, Panthers 38, drawn 3
Last meeting: Round 18, Panthers 12 defeated by Sharks 24 at Panthers Stadium, Penrith
Last five: Sharks 5, Panthers 0
Record at venue: Never played
Record in finals: Never played
1 Valentine Holmes, 2 Sosaia Feki, 3 Josh Dugan, 4 Ricky Leutele, 5 Edrick Lee, 6 Matt Moylan, 7 Chad Townsend, 8 Andrew Fifita, 9 Jayden Brailey, 10 Matt Prior, 11 Luke Lewis, 12 Scott Sorensen, 13 Paul Gallen (c)
Interchange: 14 Kurt Capewell, 15 James Segeyaro, 16 Aaron Woods, 17 Jayson Bukuya, 18 Jesse Ramien, 19 Ava Seumanufagai, 20 Joseph Paulo, 21 Kyle Flanagan
The Cronulla Sharks have an obvious change which we will get to in a moment.
However, the big news coming out of their camp in the lead-up to the game is that Josh Dugan has been ruled out with a shoulder injury.
While the New South Wales Origin outside back is a big loss for the Sharks, they are likely to bring back Jesse Ramien, who has been sitting on the sidelines with an injury of his own.
The other change is the loss of another Origin player Wade Graham. Scott Sorensen comes into the starting side, while Kurt Capewell joins the bench.
1 Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, 2 Josh Mansour, 3 Waqa Blake, 4 Tyrone Peachey, 5 Christian Crichton, 6 James Maloney, 7 Nathan Cleary, 8 Trent Merrin 9 Sione Katoa, 10 Reagan Campbell-Gillard, 11 Villame Kikau, 12 Isaah Yeo, 13 James Fisher-Harris
Interchange: 14 Tyrone May, 15 Moses Leota, 16 Corey Harawira-Naera, 17 James Tamou, 18 Wayde Egan, 19 Jack Hetherington, 20 Kaide Ellis, 21 Tyrone Phillips
The Panthers are unchanged from their big win over the Warriors last week. It was originally thought Wayde Egan would play at hooker after sitting out with an injury, but coach Cameron Ciraldo has gone for the status quo.
James Maloney is still the man and could ruin Matt Moylan
One of the more juicy points ahead of this match is the battle between James Maloney and Matt Moylan, who were traded during the off-season.
While the Sharks looked to have the better of the deal at the end of the regular season, things might turn on a head this weekend.
What Maloney produced last weekend was nothing short of splendid. While he was injured over the final weeks of the season, the Panthers looked lost in attack.
Full credit to Nathan Cleary because he is a terrific young player, but he seemed to be a shadow of his former self without Maloney sitting next to him in the halves.
Maloney’s return provided the steadying hand the Panthers so desperately needed. They have looked calm and composed during their last two victories, with the kicking game of Maloney abling them to control the battle of field possession and territory on their way to the victories.
Moylan has shown skills this year – glimpses of what he is capable of – but it hasn’t been on the consistent level expected, and last week, he looked like a deer caught in the headlights.
Sure, he was exposed even more because he didn’t have the ever talented Wade Graham playing on the outside of him for most of the game, but his passing, kicking and decision making was off. It seemed to shoot his confidence and it was little surprise he somewhat disappeared during the second half.
If he does that again, Maloney and the Panthers will have a field day.
Will the Sharks be able to beat their injury concerns?
Speaking of Graham, and he is obviously going to miss this game and the rest of the season with the ACL injury he picked up last week.
It’s a huge blow for Cronulla. As some have pointed out, the Sharks actually have a better record without Graham this year than they do with him, but this is the finals and a player of Graham’s talent and experience (at the highest levels of the game) can make all the difference.
I wrote last week before their game against the Roosters the Sharks back row had to be at their best to win – Graham’s injury made that impossible and without the Sharks forward pack absolutely dominating, they stood little chance of knocking over the tri-colours.
Things will be easier this week, but the loss of Graham, replaced by Sorensen, is still a killer blow to the club.
Things got worse just 24 hours from kick-off. Centre Josh Dugan has been ruled out with a shoulder injury which is believed to be not related at all to that crusher tackle from Latrell Mitchell.
This will be an easier one to replace for the Sharks though – not because Dugan is a poor player – far from it. But because Jesse Ramien is expected to be back. The boom youngster, who is Newcastle-bound next year, has had a superb 2017 and will slot straight back into the centres.
If he isn’t fit though, coach Shane Flanagan faces another headache.
Reagan Campbell-Gillard needs to be the leader up front
Moving from the Sharks back row to the Panthers forward pack, and it’s clear they are the ones who will need to take up the battle this week and get physical in the middle third of the park if they hope to stand a chance against Cronulla.
In that respect, Reagan Campbell-Gillard is the key man. He was in fine form throughout most of the regular season, but there was a clear trend. When he ripped in, played with energy and led from the front, bending the line on each run and hitting hard in defence, the Panthers were a damn good footy side.
When he wasn’t, their pack seemed to turn to water a little bit and they struggled to find a way to the front.
Now, last week, he was applauded for his performance, and don’t get me wrong, he ran the ball hard and caused problems for the Warriors defence.
The problem was the inconsistency with which he did it. By full time, Campbell-Gillard had eight runs for 63 metres.
A similar return against Cronulla won’t leave the Panthers with the same result they had against the Auckland-based Warriors.
The Sharks finishing ability still leaves a lot to be desired
Cronulla constantly found ways to put themselves in good positions last week, but botched at least three genuinely good scoring opportunties.
It’s something they must find a fix for this week against the always dangerous Panthers, who are never out of the fight no matter what point of the game it is.
The Sharks, whether it’s through execution or a simplification of plays, must be patient and ensure they make the most of their opportunities, of which there are sure to be more of than last week. The loss to the Roosters was played up the middle third in a very end-to-end style. This is likely to be more free-flowing and attacking.
A game like that doesn’t neccessarily suit the Sharks, so when they go on runs of possession, they have to make the most of it.
I’ve already discussed the impact of Moylan here, but this is down to their outside backs doing the little things right and Valentine Holmes including his heavy involvement in support play.
If that happens, they could run up a score. If it doesn’t, it could be another night of frustration for fans of the black, white and blue.
With the results of last week, the unpredictability of Penrith and injuries for the Sharks, this game could genuinely go either way.
In saying that, I’m going to tip Cronulla’s season will end on Friday night.
As strange as it seems to be tipping against the Sharks after they battled the Roosters and could well have won that game if a few decisions went their way and a few tries weren’t botched, you feel like it’s going to be tough for them to get back up from the loss.
While most of the stats will point the way of Cronulla, Penrith have James Maloney, who is a wizard when it comes to taking teams through the finals, and a pack who, at their best, have the potential to be one of the top groups in the competition.
Reagan Campbell-Gillard is the key. He needs to have a big game, but with the injury to Wade Graham, the Sharks are there for the taking.
So long as their pack match it, they have the backs and weapons across the park to either get an early lead and run away, or pull themselves back at the back-end of the contest.
Panthers by 8.
Kick-off: Friday, September 14, 7:40pm (AEST)
Venue: Allianz Stadium, Sydney
TV: Live, Fox League and Nine Network
Online: Live, Foxtel app, Foxtel now, 9Now, NRL digital pass
Betting: Sharks $1.68, Panthers $2.20
Referees: Ashley Klein, Adam Gee
Don’t forget, The Roar will have live scores and coverage of each NRL final, as well as match moments and highlights.