Wests Tigers v Sea Eagles preview
3 hours ago | Tim Costello
Fierce rivals Cronulla and Penrith meet in the finals for the first time in history with a trip to Melbourne looming
It was a case of close but not close enough for the Sharks last weekend. They had several opportunities to take down the Roosters but failed to capitalise on them, eventually falling 21-12.
It would have been a frustrating result for Shane Flanagan's men given that they now have to suit up again on Friday night to earn their spot in week three of the finals.
And they will have to do it without influential edge forward Wade Graham. While strong in defence, Graham's true value is his flair and short-range kicking game, which has unlocked Cronulla's left-edge attack.
His creative ability has also made five-eighth Matt Moylan's job a whole lot easier. Graham has the most try-assists (6) and line-break assists (11) of any second rower in the competition and his absence will certainly be felt on Friday night.
In saying that, the fact that he is out for the year means that the Sharks can focus on getting the job done without him instead of awaiting his return.
He is replaced in the starting side by Scott Sorenson, with Kurt Capewell given the final position on the bench.
While this week's game may be viewed as a chance to see who the winner was from the Moylan-Maloney player swap, it can be argued that regardless of the result both teams have benefited from their new five-eighths in different ways.
For Cronulla, Moylan has provided them with much-needed energy in attack, something which Maloney was lacking in the back end of the year.
Conversely, Maloney has offered Penrith exactly what they need at this time of the year - big-game experience.
And it was on full display last weekend as the Panthers overcame an early 12-2 deficit to run down the Warriors 27-12.
Maloney's calming influence alongside his smart long-range kicking game ensured that Penrith weren't overawed by the situation and with a preliminary final berth on the line, coach Cameron Ciraldo will be looking for him to mirror his efforts on Friday night against Cronulla.
The most pleasing aspect of last week's win for Ciraldo would have been his side's defensive resolve.
After conceding 36 points to the Warriors only a fortnight ago, the Panthers looked set to leak just as many points when they let in two quick tries early in the first half.
While the Warriors weren't all too dangerous, the Panthers still did well to remain focussed and hold their opposition to just 12 points.
A similar effort will be needed on Friday as they take on the kings of the grind.
Last meeting: Round 18 2018 - Panthers 12 Sharks 24
Who to watch: All eyes will be on the two five-eighths on Friday night, but this game will be decided up front. Andrew Fifita has been close to the Sharks' best every time they have played Penrith in recent years, with his aggression up front proving tough to match. His offloads have also caught Penrith's big men off guard, with the front rower coming up with 10 in his past two games against the Panthers. In an ageing pack, Fifita's energy and second-phase play is crucial to Cronulla's chance, particularly without Graham.
While Penrith's pack stood up against the Warriors last week, one man who is yet to rediscover his mojo is Reagan Campbell-Gillard. Ever since returning from a broken jaw, the Penrith enforcer hasn't been the same, lacking the intensity that saw him make his State of Origin debut earlier this year. He has also been caught out in defence, as evident in the role he played in Issac Luke's try last Friday night. ‘RCG' can be one of the most damaging front rowers in the game and needs to step up against one of the best packs in the competition.
Favourite: Cronulla are slight favourites to take down the Panthers at Allianz.
Tip: If Maloney wasn't playing, the Sharks are clear winners. But his composure seemed to rub off on his teammates last week as they strangled the Warriors out of the game and into defeat. If Penrith can match Cronulla up front, they may just have the advantage in their kicking game to get home. That is a massive if though. Panthers by 6.
1. Valentine Holmes 2. Sosaia Feki 18. Jesse Ramien 4. Ricky Leutele 5. Edrick Lee 6. Matt Moylan 7. Chad Townsend 8. Andrew Fifita 9. Jayden Brailey 10. Matt Prior 11. Luke Lewis 14. Kurt Capewell 13. Paul Gallen 12. Scott Sorensen 15. James Segeyaro 16. Aaron Woods 17. Jayson Bukuya
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 14. Tyrone May 15. Moses Leota 16. Corey Harawira-Naera 17. James Tamou
Referees: Ashley Klein, Adam Gee; Sideline Officials: Nick Beashel, Chris Sutton; Video Referees: Steve Chiddy, Ben Galea;