This semi final pits the Cronulla Sharks against the Penrith Panthers on Friday night at Allianz Stadium, with the winner booking a preliminary final against the Melbourne Storm.
TEAM FORM GUIDE
The Cronulla Sharks ended the regular season in fine form. They won their final four matches to sneak into the top four and earn a second shot in the finals. They played the Roosters last Saturday night in the second qualifying final, failing to take advantage of their opportunities and losing 21-12.
Penrith struggled through the final rounds, losing matches against bottom-eight teams. They brought it together for their final round match against an undermanned Melbourne and continued into their elimination final last Saturday night against New Zealand. They fell behind 12-2 early, but off the back of the composed James Maloney they scored 25 unanswered points to make the second week of the finals.
The loss to the Sydney Roosters provided a massive blow to Cronulla’s chances, with the season-ending ACL injury to Wade Graham. His place at left second row is been taken by Scott Sorensen with the empty bench spot given to Kurt Capewell, who returns from injury in a timely manner.
The Penrith Panthers are unchanged from their victory over New Zealand, with Maloney fit despite aggravating a neck injury during the game.
These two teams entered the NSWRL back in 1967 and have never met in a final. Both teams are full of international and representative players, and have experienced the big crowds and big occasion of finals footy before. They’ve met twice this year, with Cronulla coming up trumps in both games. Their first game was back in round seven, when a Sharks team missing Paul Gallen, Graham and Luke Lewis held off a late fightback to win 26-22. The second match was in round 18, with the Sharks again holding a surging Panthers off to win 24-12. Matt Moylan put in strong performances in both games to help his new side get one over his old team. And once again the battle between the teams’ five eighths will be pivotal.
In the off-season Sharks coach Shane Flanagan identified their attack as a big reason why they failed to go back-to-back. His solution: bring the out-of-favour Panthers star Moylan into the fold. This paved way for a player swap that saw Maloney and Moylan switch clubs. This do-or-die match will determine which side got the best out of the trade. But the battle between these players isn’t the only intriguing halves match up.
Nathan Cleary and Maloney have been a part of high-pressure matches this season. While for the Sharks, Chad Townsend – their 2016 premiership-winning halfback – and Moylan will line up for the second time in a finals match together. Both players will relish the opportunity to come up against the incumbent NSW Origin halves and even push their stakes towards further representative honours. The team that can kick better will come out on top, with Maloney showing last week how easy it is to turn a match with a strong kicking game.
The battle between the forwards should lead to some big collisions in the middle of the field. The biggest match up will be between Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Andrew Fifita. Neither will give an inch for their team and both are sure to take their match up personally. If the Sharks can get off to a great start they need to ensure they take their opportunities, unlike last week, though the Panthers’ defence is nowhere near as formidable as the Sydney Roosters. But whatever the Panthers lack in defence they make up for in attack and will always remain confident if they manage to fall behind during the match.
The Cronulla Sharks have won the past five against Penrith.
Cronulla Sharks: 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.
Interchange: 14 Kurt Capewell, 15 James Segeyaro, 16 Aaron Woods, 17 Jason Bukuya.
Reserves: 18 Jesse Ramien, 19 Ava Seumanufagai, 20 Joseph Paulo, 21 Kyle Flanagan.
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 Viliame Kikau, 12 Isaah Yeo, 13 James Fisher-Harris.
Interchange: 14 Tyrone May, 15 Moses Leota, 16 Corey Harawira-Naera, 17 James Tamou.
Reserves: 18 Wade Egan, 19 Jack Hetherington, 20 Kaide Ellis, 21 Tyrone Phillips.
THE IMPORTANT DETAILS
Date: Friday 14th Spetember
Venue: Allianz Stadium
WHO WILL WIN?
With both sides having great reasons to feel confident about getting a victory, I expect nothing less than another close one. The battle in the halves and the forwards will be intriguing and hopefully gives us a powerful and intense opening stanza. If the Panthers can come out of the blocks fast – and not rely on scoring late points – they should be too good for the Sharks. But big matches are almost always decided by defence and as long as the Sharks can take their opportunities, their defence should be stronger.
Sharks by two.