Round 18: Panthers v Sharks preview
Young Panther cubs look for two-straight against near full-strength Sharks
On Friday night, Anthony Griffin will field the most inexperienced and youngest side in this year's competition. With an average playing age of just under 23 and a total of 915 first-grade games between them, it will be a tough task for the Mountain Men.
However, they proved that they could do it last week when the walloped the Warriors 36-4. Fill-in halves Tyrone May and Jarome Luai were exceptional, with the latter scoring two tries and setting one up in the corner for winger Tyrone Phillips.
It was clear that coach Griffin simply told the pair to go out and follow your instincts as while the Panthers' attack lacked structure at times, their intuitive style of play was highly dangerous. You only have to look at Phillips' try, when Luai put in a cheeky grubber on the third tackle to put the winger over.
While Penrith may be missing big-game experience this week, familiarity shouldn't be an issue given that the majority of them played together in the lower grades. Origin trio James Maloney, Nathan Cleary and Tyrone Peachey will all sit out Friday night's game after leading the Blues to a 2-1 series victory.
Given their lack of energy when they backed up against the Raiders, the decision is probably a smart one. Meanwhile, fullback Dallin Watene-Zelezniak is out for three weeks with a hamstring injury, with the talented Caleb Aekins set to make his first-grade debut in his place.
Penrith have only lost one game at Panthers Stadium this year and will be hoping to keep their strong record intact on Friday night.
Meanwhile, while the Sharks may still be without Josh Dugan and Luke Lewis, they will still put forward a far more experienced and stronger squad on paper than the Panthers. After pipping the Warriors 18-15 a fortnight ago, Shane Flanagan's men earned a much-needed rest, with second rower Wade Graham set to make his return from injury this week.
Matt Moylan also returns, but not from injury. Rather, he makes his comeback to Panthers Stadium after his controversial move to the Shire this year.
The Sharks currently sit two points outside the Top Four and will need to win on Friday to remain in touch with the fourth-placed Panthers, who are currently on 24 points. Cronulla do have a strong record against Penrith, having won 9 of their past 11 against the club.
The Panthers' last win over the Sharks came all the way back in 2015, when they claimed a 26-18 win on Anzac Day.
Who to watch: Debutant Aekins is the logical choice to replace Watene-Zelezniak at fullback, despite the fact the Panthers are running low on first-grade experience this week. Aikens has been one of the best in the Intrust Super Premiership this year, leading the competition for tackle-busts (85), running metres (2,962), runs (299) and kick return metres (737). Penrith's outside backs have been crucial to their success in recent years as their strength and power has provided their side with plenty of go-forward to begin their sets. As such, it appears Aekins was the perfect option to replace DWZ.
While all eyes will be on Moylan at the start of the game, the Panthers need to pay close attention to Andrew Fifita, after the barnstorming prop tore them apart in their last meeting. Fifita was enormous that night, with 126 running metres and 45 tackles in a strong 73-minute display. His six offloads were also incredibly dangerous as Cronulla's second-phase play constantly challenged the Panthers' defence. Penrith's big men have a big job ahead in controlling Fifita as he looks to inspire the Sharks to their 11th win of the year.
Favourite: The Sharks are well-backed to beat the under-strength Panthers.
Tip: The energetic and youthful Panthers should pose a significant threat to the Sharks, although the key to success for the home side is through the middle. If their pack can gain the upper hand, they should have a serious chance of taking home the two points. However, Cronulla's defence is usually far more tough than that of the Warriors. With that in mind, the Sharks should be able to frustrate the Panthers into defeat. While I am a Penrith fan, I do take comfort in the fact that four of my past five tips for this website have been incorrect. Sharks by 8.