The NRL match review committee has charged Sharks forward Dale Finucane with grade-three dangerous contact – the worst category applicable – on Sunday morning for his controversial hit on Panthers centre Stephen Crichton.
Penrith survived an early scare against the Cronulla Sharks to record a tight 20-10 win at BlueBet Stadium, moving 10 points clear at the top of the NRL ladder.
It brings them into sight of the record in the NRL era, set by the 2006 Melbourne Storm, of an eight-point winning margin in the minor premiership race and the all-time mark of 11 set by Souths in 1951.
The late Finucane incident provoked controversy and one of the worst-looking injuries of the year, with Crichton suffering a lacerated ear. Finucane shot the line and collided head on head with Crichton, which was deemed not to be a penalty despite an arguably reckless manner in which he approached the tackle.
He will miss two matches if he takes an early guilty plea but risks sitting three out by taking his case to the NRL judiciary.
Crichton was taken off with a HIA and told the ABC post-match that he couldn’t remember a thing that had happened in the game. He was taken to hospital and is set to see a plastic surgeon.
“I’m sure the last thing Dale Finucane wanted to do was injure Critta,” said Panthers coach Ivan Cleary in the media conference.
“Historically head clashes have been a head clash. But I just think how easy it is to give a high-tackle penalty away now, contact with the head. It just looked bad.
“Critta is not in a great way. There is certainly an argument for careless. But that is currently the game and interpretations.
“I thought we would at least get a penalty. I’m not exactly sure of interpretations, but it is clearly contact with the head. It knocks him out.
“That was like a car crash. It’s weird that that is okay, but the mildest of taps sometimes isn’t okay.”
It wasn’t just Crichton doing it the hard way: the whole team had to fight their way to the two points. Cronulla raced into a ten point lead in the early stages and put the Panthers off their game in a way that few have managed, but were gradually pegged back and overhauled by this relentless Penrith team.
It was hardly champagne football: as the rain fell at the foot of the mountains, two of the NRL’s best managed to produce an errorathon, with close to 30 between them. Neither could accumulate much pressure.
With signs clear early on that this would be a low-scoring affair, Cronulla will likely be annoyed that they didn’t get enough on the board when they were hot.
Ten points was never likely to be enough and from the moment they scored their second try onwards, the Sharks managed just six tackles in the Panthers’ 20m zone.
“The guys are disappointed because we feel like we have more to offer than that,” said Sharks boss Craig Fitzgibbon.
“There is a lot of confidence you take out of it, confidence to get in the arm-wrestle. But we knew that to get something out of tonight we had to execute so I am disappointed about that.”
Cronulla flew out of the blocks. They might have crossed before they did, but it was worth the wait: Jesse Ramien caught a kick, offloaded to Connor Tracey and he beat five Panthers to score.
The pressure continued and Penrith had no answer. Nicho Hynes’s kick was too good for Dylan Edwards, with Royce Hunt on hand to pick up the pieces, and as the Panthers overcompensated on their sliding defence, Matt Moylan darted for the line.
The replays suggested that he was short as Isaah Yeo came across to make the tackle and hold him up, but the bunker let it slide.
Penrith begun to slowly wrest some of the control back, but were clearly rattled. Their usual patience in possession was missing as they forced offloads and found errors.
It took until the 35th minute for the line to be breached: Api Koroisau delaying the pass to Jerome Luai, who slipped Izack Tago into the hole.
With seconds remaining in the half, Nathan Cleary added a penalty and the score stood at 10-8, a poor return for the performance that the Sharks had turned in.
If you give Penrith an inch, they’ll take a mile. Just 45 seconds into the second half, they busted the right edge of the Sharks defence and found Taylan May in space, with Dylan Edwards running support on the inside to score.
Though Penrith had taken the lead, they were far from secure. Both sides had struggled with errors in the first half, combining for 12 between them, but they surpassed that mark within 25 minutes of the second.
That both sides failed to complete was helping the Panthers. Cronulla couldn’t generate any field position and, as the conditions deteriorated, it looked increasingly like a four point lead might be enough.
There was time yet for a little controversy, with the Crichton incident with Finucane before late on, Luai added some gloss to the scoreline, and dashed any hopes of a comeback. In truth, even with the gap at four, it had never looked likely.