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Penrith survived an early scare against Cronulla Sharks to record a narrow 20-10 victory at BlueBet Stadium, moving ten points clear at the top of the NRL ladder.
This puts them within sight of the NRL-era record, set by the 2006 Melbourne Storm, of an eight-point winning margin in the Minor Premiership race.
A late incident caused controversy and one of the worst injuries of the year, with Stephen Crichton suffering a lacerated ear. Dale Finucane fired down the line and collided head to head with Crichton which was not deemed a penalty despite an arguably reckless manner in which he approached the tackle.
Crichton was taken out with an HIA and told the ABC after the game that he did not remember anything that happened in the game. He was taken to hospital and needs to see a plastic surgeon.
“I’m sure the last thing Dale Finucane wanted to do was hurt Critta,” Panthers coach Ivan Cleary said at the press conference.
“Historically, clashes of heads have been clashes of heads. But I just think how easy it is to give a high tackle penalty now, head contact. It just looked bad.
“Critta is not very well. There is certainly an argument for negligence. But it is currently the game and the interpretations.
“I thought we would at least get a penalty. I’m not exactly sure of the interpretations, but it’s clearly head contact. It knocks him out.
“It was like a car accident. It’s weird that it’s okay, but the slightest tap sometimes doesn’t.
It wasn’t just Crichton who did it the hard way: the whole team had to fight their way to the two points. Cronulla took an early ten-point lead and knocked the Panthers out of their game in a way few have managed but were gradually caught and overhauled by this relentless Penrith side.
It wasn’t champagne football: as the rain fell at the foot of the mountains, two of the NRL’s best managed to produce an errorathon, with almost 30 between them. Neither could build up much pressure.
With clear signs early on that it would be a low-scoring affair, Cronulla will likely be annoyed that they didn’t get enough on the board when they were hot.
Ten points would probably never be enough and from the time they scored their second try, the Sharks only managed six tackles in the Panthers 20m zone.
“Guys are disappointed because we think we have more to offer than that,” Sharks boss Craig Fitzgibbon said.
“There’s a lot of confidence that you get out of it, confidence to go into the showdown. But we knew to get anything out of tonight we had to perform, so I’m disappointed about that.
Cronulla flew out of the blocks. They might have crossed before, but it was worth the wait: Jesse Ramien grabbed a kick, unloaded on Connor Tracey and he beat five Panthers to score.
The pressure continued and Penrith had no answer. Nicho Hynes’ kick was too good for Dylan Edwards, with Royce Hunt on hand to pick up the pieces, and as the Panthers overcompensated their slippery defense, Matt Moylan swung for the line.
Replays suggested he was small as Isaah Yeo came in to tackle and hold him off, but the bunker let him slide.
Penrith started to slowly regain some control, but was clearly shaken. Their usual patience in possession was lacking as they forced offloads and found mistakes.
We had to wait until the 35e minute for the line to be crossed: Api Koroisau delays the pass to Jerome Luai, who slips Izack Tago into the hole.
With seconds remaining in half time, Nathan Cleary added a penalty and the score stood at 10-8, a poor comeback for the performance the Sharks had put in.
If you give Penrith an inch, they’ll take a mile. Just 45 seconds into the second half, they smashed the right edge of the Sharks defense and found Taylan May in space, with Dylan Edwards running an inside support to score.
Although Penrith took the lead, they were far from safe. Both teams had struggled with errors in the first half, combining for 12 between them, but they overshot that mark within 25 minutes of the second.
What both sides failed to complete was helping the Panthers. Cronulla couldn’t generate position on the pitch, and as conditions deteriorated it increasingly looked like a four-point lead might be enough.
There was still time for a little controversy, with Crichton’s incident with Finucane before late Luai added some shine to the scoreline and dashed any hopes of a comeback. In truth, even with the gap at four, it had never seemed likely.