In a game of two halves, a Chad Townsend field goal has seen the Cronulla Sharks secure a Preliminary Final berth in Melbourne after defeating the Penrith Panthers 21-20 in front of 19,211 supporters at Allianz Stadium.
Establishing an 18-2 lead at halftime, the Sharks were made to fight for their lives when the Panthers reversed the scoreline with ten minutes to play, before the Cronulla halfback stepped up to land the decisive point with six minutes to play.
Taking little more than five minutes to open proceedings, Chad Townsend put himself in the right position to touch down following an Andrew Fifita offload close to the line, while the scoreboard attendant was shortly back at work as Valentine Holmes continued his strong vein of form with a penalty goal and a converted try to establish a 14-0 lead.
Needing to respond but consistently producing errors and having their endurance levels tested by the ruthless Cronulla defence, the Panthers managed to steady the scoring momentarily, but a well-timed pass from Matt Moylan saw Luke Lewis streak into open space in the 30th minute to see the scoreline extended to three converted tries.
Opening their account via a Nathan Cleary penalty goal on halftime, the Panthers were able to regroup in the sheds before launching another, ultimately ill-fated, comeback.
Scoring first points shortly after the recommencement by way of Holmes' cavalier attitude in-goal enabling Cleary to pounce, the Sharks regained a 12-point buffer with a quarter of the match remaining, before the Panthers struck back in quick succession.
Producing two tries in a matter of minutes through a determined Isaah Yeo charge (65th minute) and a bullocking Viliame Kikau surge finished off by Waqa Blake (68th minute), the comeback proved too be a bridge-too-far for the Panthers as Townsend stepped up to secure the result.
Setting up a clash against their 2016 Grand Final combatants, the Sharks will have high hopes against Melbourne having defeated the reigning premiers twice this year, however captain Paul Gallen may miss the clash after sustaining a rotator cuff injury shortly after halftime.
Next Friday the Cronulla Sharks will contest the Melbourne Storm in the Victorian capital for a place in the Grand Final, while the Penrith Panthers will be pursuing a new coach for 2019 in earnest after failing to improve their overall standing from the past two seasons.