Last week they were gritty. This week they were clinical. And classy.
The Cronulla Sharks put a turbulent week behind them to score a comprehensive 28-2 win over Penrith on Sunday.
So many experts and fans were sure Cronulla would be unable to back up their premiership-winning success from last season. But on this evidence you would have to ask why not?
For all the possession and field position the highly-fancied Panthers enjoyed early in this game, they had nothing to show for it other than a Nathan Cleary penalty goal. The Sharks soaked up the pressure like a sponge and waited for their chance.
It felt like Cronulla were only down Penrith’s end twice in the first half but both times they came away with points. Firstly, Chad Townsend rolled a pin-point grubber kick through for James Maloney to touch down before a sweeping play to the left saw Sosaia Feki score in the corner to give Cronulla a 12-2 half-time lead. Another defensive masterclass meant the Sharks have only given up 16 points in the first halves of their last four games.
They were even better after the break, with Townsend expertly laying on a try for Jack Bird. Paul Gallen then barged over and Andrew Fifita grabbed his first try since that match-winning effort in last season’s grand final.
It was the first time Cronulla had kept their opposition scoreless two weeks in a row since August 1994 when they shut out the Knights and Rabbitohs back to back. It was also the Sharks’ eighth win from their last 10 visits to Penrith.
The Sharks were a class above Penrith. It is obvious that a number of their players are now playing with the confidence of premiership winners. Townsend proved again that he would not look out of place wearing another sky blue jersey, a week after getting his second win in a row over champion Melbourne halfback Cooper Cronk. Maloney showed why he is one of the club’s best ever signings. While Luke Lewis and Gallen are simply getting better with age. Have they ever played better football?
Cronulla’s young guns were also at it. Bird put a stressful week behind him, in which it was announced that he would leave the club at the end of the season to join Brisbane, to put in another strong performance. Valentine Holmes is growing into the fullback role, getting better each week. And did anyone think Jayden Brailey would make such a seamless transition to first grade?
The win was also Cronulla’s fourth from as many away games so far this campaign. If they made Southern Cross Group Stadium a fortress last season, the Sharks are proving they can get the job done on the road just as well.
Townsend told Fox Sports there was still more improvement in his side and that the players had not allowed the news around Bird to disrupt their preparation.
“We’re super stoked at the moment. To get another win away from home, on the back of our defence. Our defence was outstanding and we were able to score some points on the back of it,” he said.
“Our attitude defensively, there’s always going to be errors… [but] we want to frustrate teams on the back of our defence.
“It’s a pretty big decision for Birdy. As players we don’t hold any grudges. Now we just want him to focus on playing footy and being Jack Bird. We wish him luck for the next chapter in his career.”
The Sharks have hauled themselves back into the NRL’s top three after seven rounds. With winnable games against the Gold Coast and Wests Tigers on the horizon, it might be their chance to continue to build momentum.
And while the experts will continue to question them or write them off, the Sharks will keep circling.
Cronulla Sharks 28 (James Maloney, Sosaia Feki, Jack Bird, Paul Gallen, Andrew Fifita tries. James Maloney four goals)
Penrith Panthers 2 (Nathan Cleary goal)
at Pepper Stadium, Penrith
Leader man of the match: Chad Townsend (Sharks)
Sharks’ next three: Titans (home), Tigers (away), Dragons (away)