Nathan Cleary has silenced his knockers with a dominating performance to help Penrith orchestrate a 26-20 upset victory over Cronulla in windy conditions at Panthers Stadium on Friday night.
On a night where the Panthers were blooding their sixth, seventh and eighth debutants of the 2019 season, it was Cleary who stood tall without the services of James Maloney to score a try and set up another as the home side punished a disinterested Sharks outfit despite three late tries flattering the scoreline and setting up a grandstand finish.
Cleary’s teenaged halves partner Matt Burton, who the NSW halfback met just three days ago, controlled the left edge with ease to look at home in the top grade.
Burton took just 14 minutes to make an impact with the Dubbo junior placing a kick through for Brent Naden to go over from close range, before a further two grubbers down the edge in a complete showing of maturity.
Cleary was next to get in on the action with a strong effort to slip through Aaron Woods and Andrew Fifita in the ruck and find Dylan Edwards in support for a 14-0 lead.
Match: Panthers v Sharks
Round 21 -
Venue: Panthers Stadium, Penrith
The Sharks, in desperate need for territory after being man-handled in the opening 30 minutes, got a breakthrough when Shaun Johnson sent Wade Graham over with a short ball.
Penrith coach Ivan Cleary opted to use barnstorming forward Viliame Kikau on the right edge in an obvious ploy to try and contain Graham, who was limited in opportunities until late in the piece.
Kikau helped the Panthers secure their third try on the stroke of halftime when he regathered a chip kick attempt from Chad Townsend with 30 seconds remaining.
Cleary slices the Sharks apart down the middle
Cleary took advantage of a jaded Sharks defensive line to slice past Paul Gallen and score under the posts.
The points continued four minutes into the second half with a repeat set ending in Edwards grabbing a double after Bronson Xerri was caught in-field to leave the Sharks short on the right edge.
Cronulla’s evening was summed up with 25 minutes remaining when Josh Morris was ruled to have been tackled with the ball despite diving for the line in a second effort.
A simple try to Sharks prop Jack Williams, who stepped past Reagan Campbell-Gillard in the 62nd minute from close range, narrowed the difference to 16.
The momentum soon began to turn when Johnson split through the middle to send Morris over and reduce the deficit to eight with 14 minutes left.
Feki try sets up another close finish
An error from Kikau made for even more nervous times for the vocal crowd of 10,860 but they were quickly put at ease shortly after when Cleary dived on a loose Townsend kick to turn momentum back in the Panthers’ favour.
Another Sharks try via Sosaia Feki with five minutes remaining narrowed the gap further but a missed conversion from Johnson out wide ensured the result would be forced to golden point at best - a scenario Ivan Cleary's men avoided as they closed out the game with rookie centre Stephen Crichton producing a spectacular take to defuse a bomb.