Panthers 16 Sharks 18
Penrith coach Ivan Cleary says Saturday's shock loss to Cronulla was an opportunity missed but insists he is still trying to work out his best team just six weeks out from the finals.
He might have another big decision ahead after halfback Peter Wallace picked up another knee injury that threatens to sideline him for an extended period leading into the finals.
Fend-off: Cronulla's Andrew Fifita palms away Panthers forward Lewis Brown. Photo: Getty Images
|View Match Statistics|
|Players||Watene Zelezniak, Naiqama, Whare||Tries||3||Tries||4||Players||Gagan(2), Gordon, Tagataese|
|Players||Soward 2/3 (66%)||Conversions||2||Conversions||1||Players||Gordon 1/4 (25%)|
|Players||Penalty goals||0||Penalty goals||0||Players|
|Players||Field goals||0||Field goals||0||Players|
The 18-16 loss to the Sharks is Penrith's second on the trot, and Cleary says there are plenty of questions being asked of his side after a strong start to the year.
"We're still a new team," Cleary said. "We've got enough to work out, we're still trying to work out combinations and which is our best team. It's just another section of the season. It's been a disappointing couple of weeks for us but that's all part of it. We have got to bounce back and move on.
"The next six weeks is the time of year when you want to be climbing into your best footy instead of going the other way."
Main man: Andrew Fifita put in a match-winning performance against the Panthers in Bathurst. Photo: Getty Images
The Panthers' decision to take their home game to Carrington Park in Bathurst did not pay dividends. Penrith squandered a golden opportunity to cement a top-four finish and all but ended any hope of their first minor premiership since 2003.
The Panthers came into the round in equal second with the Bulldogs, just two points off competition frontrunners Manly, but the second big upset of the round may just prove costly for Cleary's men.
Given the Sydney Roosters were stunned by the Knights in Newcastle on Friday night, a win for Penrith on Saturday would have given them a four-point buffer on the fifth-placed Roosters.
"We just want to try and finish as high as we can, but when you start looking too far ahead, you start losing your way," Cleary said.
"The reality is and what we've seen over the last couple of weeks in the competition, it's such a tight comp. It's been like that the whole year. We've seen enough upsets for everyone to understand if you start looking too far ahead and work out who is going to finish where and what not, you might just take your eye off the ball. At this point, we've just lost two in a row, so the next focus is making sure we play well next week."
Wallace had missed the Panthers' past two games after suffering separate knee and ankle injuries in round 17 and was again taken from the field in the first half after picking up a knock, but returned later in the half after receiving an injection.
The Sharks led by two points with 20 minutes remaining, showing incredible resilience in defence to withstand a late Panthers onslaught to hold on to a rare two competition points.
It was Andrew Fifita, who has been dogged by injury and suspension for the most of this season, who inspired Cronulla to just their fifth win of the term in front of a crowd of 8824.
Fifita finished the game with 20 runs, 211 metres, 29 tackles, eight offloads, two tackle breaks, one line break and one try assist in one of the finest displays by a front-rower this season.
"It's hard for the defence, I don't think he knows what he's doing half the time," stand-in skipper Wade Graham said. "He's just a big thing running around, playing footy. When he's like that he's certainly a handful and can produce some special stuff for the team."
Graham also congratulated the Panthers on bringing their game out to Bathurst, despite playing on a heavy track. "I reckon it was a great initiative from Panthers, they have to be congratulated as well as the community out at Bathurst," Graham said.
"It was unreal to see the hill, you couldn't see a patch of grass on the hill. It was a great atmosphere ... it felt like we [wound] back the clock to when we were playing at 16 or 17."