Jem Nash previews a very intriguing clash between the improving Cronulla Sharks and second placed Penrith Panthers.
The Sharks were in trouble just three weeks ago when they went down to the Dragons, but they have quietly strung together three wins in a row, including dropping 40 points on the Sea Eagles and Titans. Shaun Johnson has started to recapture some of his best form, but the side will be hurt by another injury to Matt Moylan. They now face one of their biggest tests of the season against the Panthers.
The Panthers have well and truly established themselves as premiership contenders, with their only loss in the season coming against the Eels, who sit one spot above them on the ladder in first place. Their forward pack is rolling, Apisai Koroisau has just about been locked in as buy of the year, and Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai continue to improve their combination in the halves. With a pretty favourable draw over the next month, they have a real opportunity to solidify themselves inside the top four.
1 Josh Dugan 2 Sione Katoa 3 Bryson Goodwin 4 Jesse Ramien 5 Ronaldo Mulitalo 6 Shaun Johnson 7 Chad Townsend 8 Andrew Fifita 9 Blayke Brailey 10 Aaron Woods 11 Briton Nikora 12 Wade Graham 13 Jack Williams 14 Toby Rudolf 15 Braden Hamlin-Uele 16 Siosifa Talakai 17 Royce Hunt Reserves: 18 Scott Sorensen 19 Connor Tracey 20 William Kennedy 21 Nene Macdonald.
Matt Moylan is out with a hamstring injury so Josh Dugan takes his spot at fullback, with Bryson Goodwin moving into the centres. Ronaldo Mulitalo returns from injury on the wing.
1 Dylan Edwards 2 Josh Mansour 3 Dean Whare 4 Stephen Crichton 5 Brent Naden 6 Jarome Luai 7 Nathan Cleary 8 James Tamou 9 Apisai Koroisau 10 James Fisher-Harris 11 Viliame Kikau 12 Liam Martin 13 Isaah Yeo 14 Tyrone May 15 Zane Tetevano 16 Moses Leota 17 Billy Burns.
Brian To’o will miss a significant time on the field with an ankle injury, with Brent Naden replacing him on the wing and Dean Whare returning from injury in the centres.
The Sharks have had the edge over the Panthers in recent years, winning five of the last six matches between the two sides, including a 21-20 win in week two of the 2018 finals series to knock the Panthers out of the competition.
BATTLE TO WATCH
Shaun Johnson v Jarome Luai
A lot of focus on the Panthers has been on Nathan Cleary, and rightly so, but five-eighth Jarome Luai has been quietly going about his business and delivering some good performances for his side. With Matt Burton waiting in the wings, Luai has stood up and he delivered probably his best game of the season last week against the Tigers. Luai finished with two try assists and a linebreak assist, as well as eight tackle breaks, proving a dangerous threat on the field.
On the other side, Shaun Johnson has been continuing to get better as the season goes on and currently sits in equal second on the Dally M leaderboard. Johnson leads the NRL in try assists with 12 this year and has added another seven linebreaks to go with it. With no Moylan, at least for the near future, the Sharks need Johnson to keep up his current form.
Panthers by six.
Date: Saturday, July 11
Venue: Netstrata Jubilee Stadium