Report, Video | Cronulla Sharks through to preliminary final after winning epic sudden death clash with Penrith Panthers 21-20

Celebration time: Chad Townsend is congratulated by his Cronulla teammates after scoring the opening try against Penrith. Picture: Chris Lane
Celebration time: Chad Townsend is congratulated by his Cronulla teammates after scoring the opening try against Penrith. Picture: Chris Lane

At half-time Sharks fans were pricing up flights to Melbourne.

Half an hour later some could barely stand to watch.

They did it the hard way, but Cronulla have survived a breathless elimination semi-final with Penrith, downing the Panthers 21-20 on Friday night.

A near perfect first half looked to have helped Cronulla keep their season alive as the Sharks blew Penrith away to lead 18-2 at half-time.

But the Panthers roared back after the break, leveling the scores with two tries in three minutes late on before Sharks half-back Chad Townsend finally iced the game with the match-winning field goal.

Cronulla will now take on the Storm in Melbourne in a preliminary final next Friday night, with a win to send them through to a second grand final in three seasons.

The Panthers had no answers for the electric Sharks in the first 40 minutes. A disappointing finals crowd of 19, 211 at Allianz Stadium were expecting a much closer contest.

Without big names Josh Dugan and Wade Graham, the former a late withdrawal on Thursday night with a shoulder problem, the latter with a season-ending knee injury, Cronulla asserted their dominance from the outset.

Townsend opened the scoring inside five minutes. A typically barnstorming Andrew Fifita run saw the giant prop poke his nose through the Penrith line before offloading for the Yarrawarrah Tigers junior to score next to the posts.

Cronulla extended their lead through a Valentine Holmes penalty goal shortly after when former Shark James Maloney was pinged for a silly tackle on Matt Prior, charging at the prop’s unprotected legs from behind while he was held up in a tackle.

The Panthers looked rattled early. A forward pass from dummy half gifting Cronulla more field position.

And the Sharks took advantage through a high Matt Moylan kick. Sosaia Feki got through to bat the ball back to Townsend before he found Holmes who strolled over untouched for his 22nd try of the season.

The Sharks sensed a feedy frenzy. A heavy Luke Lewis tackle rocked Waqa Blake, forcing another Panthers error.

Another superb kick-chase of a Moylan high kick barley saw Christian Crichton able to field the ball before he was bundled into touch by Fifita, Feki and Ricky Leutele.

Moylan showed his class nine minutes from half-time. The five-eighth glided across field before picking the perfect flat short pass for Lewis to steam through a yawning gap, with the back-rower racing 20 metres to slide over and give Cronulla an 18-0 lead.

A Nathan Cleary penalty goal on the stroke of half-time had Penrith on the board before they reduced the deficit further eight minutes into the second half.

Holmes was pleading with a Tyrone Peachey grubber kick to roll dead in goal, allowing Cleary to race through and ground the ball centimetres inside the paint.

The error allowed Penrith back into the game before Cronulla edged back out to a 12-point lead through another penalty goal after Townsend had been whacked across the face.

Cronulla had lost captain Paul Gallen to a shoulder problem as the Panthers continued their fightback. Isaah Yeo crashed over James Segeyaro and Scott Sorensen with 14 minutes to play, with Cleary’s conversion cutting Cronulla’s lead to 20-14.

The game was then turned on its head from the next set.

Viliame Kikau burst between Prior and Jayson Bukuya to storm down field. The giant back-rower looked to have blown his chance to pass on his inside but instead produced a massive fend on Holmes before eventually finding Blake to score.

All of a sudden, Cleary’s conversion had made it 20-all.

With all the momentum now with Penrith the Sharks needed something special. Holmes produced a cheeky re-start along the ground which the fullback himself re-gained.

That led to Cronulla attempting to steal back the lead immediately, only for Townsend’s attempt at field goal charged down, with Penrith gathering the loose ball.

He wouldn’t make the same mistake five and a half minutes from full-time, this time hooking a wobbly drop goal just inside the left-hand upright.

But Penrith weren’t done, regaining possession from the kick-off, giving Cleary a chance to level the score.

But the NSW halfback dragged his field goal attempt wide, letting the Sharks off the hook, with Cronulla holding on to set up a 2016 grand final replay.

Leader Scoreboard

Cronulla Sharks 21 (Chad Townsend, Valentine Holmes, Luke Lewis tries. Valentine Holmes four goals. Chad Townsend field goal)

defeated

Penrith Panthers 20 (Nathan Cleary, Isaah Yeo, Waqa Blake tries. Nathan Cleary four goals)

at Allianz Stadium, Moore Park

Crowd: 19,211

Leader man of the match: Chad Townsend (Sharks)

Sharks’ next game: preliminary final vs Storm at AAMI Park, Melbourne next Friday night

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