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3 hours ago | Tim Costello
Last-start losers fight for much-needed win
Stunned by the reigning premiers at home last Saturday, the Cronulla Sharks will be hoping to bounce back against the Penrith Panthers in the first match of the Easter long weekend.
Going toe-to-toe with the Roosters early on in the 30-16 loss only to concede four tries in ten minutes either side of halftime, coach John Morris will be stressing the importance of maintaining consistency throughout matches following contrasting periods of play over the first five rounds.
Capable of blowing opposition teams away as evidenced by the attacking tour de force demonstrated in Townsville, only for troubling completion rates to cruel any chance of the side getting the better of premiership heavyweights, the Sharks will be hoping recent history against the Panthers repeats having claimed 11 wins from their past 13 meetings, including six in a row dating back to 2016.
After missing the past fortnight with rib issues, captain Paul Gallen has been named to return at lock, while Braden Hamlin-Uele is on stand-by should Gallen or Andrew Fifita (hamstring) succumb to injury.
Taking multiple steps backwards against the Gold Coast Titans after snatching victory from the jaws of defeat a week earlier, the Penrith Panthers will be out to kick start their season following an errant run of form over the opening month of football.
Squandering a second half lead to allow the Titans to post their first competition points with a 30-24 win, coach Ivan Cleary has responded to his side's underwhelming start to 2019 by dispensing with the six-man leadership group established before the season, instead handing James Tamou sole responsibility as captain in a major show of confidence in the 30-year-old prop.
Winning their last match at the ground formerly known as Shark Park back in 2012, the Panthers will need to demonstrate considerable improvement in defence after missing 67 tackles against the Titans last week and managing a completion rate above 70 per cent just once this season.
Elevating Wayde Egan to starting hooker at the expense of Sione Katoa on the bench, Thursday night will mark Tim Grant's first match for Penrith since 2014. In the four years since the former New South Wales prop last played at the foot of the mountains, only five NRL players remain from the team that finished as preliminary finalists.
Last meeting: Finals Week 2 2018 - Sharks 21 Panthers 20
Who to watch: Shifting to Cronulla following a decade of success at Belmore, Josh Morris has provided strong service to the Sharks in the latter stage of his career. Among the most experienced outside backs in the league currently, the 32-year-old Australian and New South Wales representative may not possess the blinding speed that saw him light up the NRL alongside brother Brett years earlier, but through longevity the two-time Dally M Centre of the Year has proven to still have plenty to offer the black, white and blue. Crossing for three tries and averaging over 100 metres per game over the first five rounds, look for Morris to give his all opposite Waqa Blake in a key personal battle on Thursday night.
Returning to the club that gave him a start in the NRL as a teenager back in 2007, Tim Grant will be out to draw upon his experience in an effort to steel Penrith's subpar resolve. Playing close to 200 first grade games across stints at the Panthers, Rabbitohs and Tigers, the 31-year-old former New South Wales prop has experienced a turbulent relationship with coach Ivan Cleary over the past five years, yet with the opportunity to stake a claim as a starting player at his hometown club, look for Grant to bring out the best in his teammates as they strive to realise the potential that saw many predict a Panthers premiership in 2019.
The favourite: Demonstrating greater attacking potential over the opening five rounds, the Sharks are expected to get the cash at the end of 80 minutes.
My tip: While both sides sit outside the top eight on two wins respectively, the Sharks appear to be more settled in their on-field performances. Sharks by 10.
1. Josh Dugan 2. Sosaia Feki 3. Bronson Xerri 4. Josh Morris 19. Will Kennedy 6. Shaun Johnson 7. Chad Townsend 8. Andrew Fifita 9. Jayden Brailey 10. Matt Prior 11. Briton Nikora 12. Kurt Capewell 13. Paul Gallen 14. Blayke Brailey 16. Jack Williams 17. Scott Sorensen 20. Braden Hamlin-uele
1. Dallin Watene-Zelezniak 2. Josh Mansour 3. Dean Whare 4. Waqa Blake 20. Malakai Watene-Zelezniak 6. James Maloney 7. Nathan Cleary 8. James Tamou 9. Wayde Egan 10. Tim Grant 11. Viliame Kikau 12. Isaah Yeo 13. James Fisher-Harris 14. Sione Katoa 16. Moses Leota 17. Reagan Campbell-Gillard 19. Liam Martin
Referees: Ben Cummins, Ziggy Przeklasa-Adamski; Sideline Officials: Phil Henderson, Chris Sutton; Video Referees: Steve Chiddy, Bryan Norrie;