The Panthers fell just short in a costly 20-18 defeat to the Sharks at Southern Cross Group Stadium on Sunday.
Despite taking the lead in the second half, the tiring Panthers were run down by Cronulla as injuries to Te Maire Martin and Waqa Blake took their toll.
With Sam McKendry suspended, Panthers coach Anthony Griffin welcomed back Jeremy Latimore on the bench in an otherwise unchanged line-up from the win over the Roosters.
The Sharks came out firing from the kick-off and on the back of a penalty they opened the scoring after only two minutes. Hooker Michael Ennis buried his way over from dummy half despite the close attention of Matt Moylan. James Maloney was unsuccessful with the conversion attempt but Cronulla led 4-0.
A Ben Barba break seemed certain to lead to more points for the Sharks in their next set but he offloaded to Andrew Fifita, who was rounded up by Waqa Blake, and the chance went begging.
A few moments later Blake took a hit in defence and left the field with a hip complaint. Isaah Yeo slotted into right centre as Tyrone Peachey made an early entry into the contest off the bench.
The Panthers earned themselves back-to-back sets on the Sharks line but despite some strong runs and a number of offloads, couldn’t find a way through.
In the 16th minute Jamie Soward was penalised for a high tackle and Maloney was on target with the boot to take Cronulla out to a 6-0 lead.
The Panthers looked increasingly desperate to spin the ball wide when attacking the Cronulla line. At times it undermined their forward momentum as the Sharks shut them down. Other attacking opportunities were undone by dropped ball just as the line looked like cracking.
As the match became a scrappy affair, Luke Lewis got a big piece of Matt Moylan and moments later Te Maire Martin got taken out off the ball. The late hit left him nursing a fractured shoulder and he was out of the game.
With four minutes to go until halftime Moylan conceded a penalty next to the uprights and again Maloney stepped up to extend Cronulla’s lead.
The Panthers went on the attack in the final seconds before the break but Josh Mansour ran out of room with the tryline within sight.
HALFTIME – Sharks 8-0
The Panthers got off to the perfect start in the second half as a spiralling Soward bomb bamboozled Sosaia Feki at the back for the Sharks. Moylan was on the spot to swoop in and score the try. Soward knocked the conversion over to make it 8-6.
A deft grubber from Moylan earned the Panthers a repeat set in the 52nd minute. From the next set some swift hands spread the ball to the right edge and Yeo bounced his way over in the corner. The attempted conversion from Soward was waved away but the Panthers had hit the lead – 10-8.
The Sharks appeared to hit back as they ran the ball down their right edge in the 60th minute. However Chad Townsend was found to be offside as the grubber was put in and the on-field decision was overturned.
It proved to be a massive turning point as the Panthers headed downfield and James Fisher-Harris crashed over for his first try in the NRL. Despite the hint of a knock on in the lead-up, the video referee sent down the green lights. Moylan took over kicking duties but couldn’t convert and the Panthers led 14-8 with 17 minutes left to play.
The lead wouldn’t last for long. From the Sharks next set, Townsend broke clear on the right edge and found Maloney in support to score. The playmaker then converted his own try to lock the game up at 14-14.
With the match in the balance, the Sharks had the best field position but couldn’t find the decisive play and seemed unwilling to set up for the field goal.
However with eight minutes to go they found space down the right flank and Valentine Holmes streaked away to give Cronulla the lead. Maloney’s conversion made it 20-14.
The Panthers weren’t quite done with and Fisher-Harris scored arguably the team’s best try of the year in the 77th minute. It was haphazard, it was shambolic and it was beautiful. Unfortunately Soward couldn’t do the business with the conversion from out wide and the Sharks held their lead 20-18.
FULLTIME – Sharks 20-18