Penrith's quest for its first minor premiership since 2003 has been dealt a major blow after a shock loss against the bottom-placed Cronulla in Bathurst today.
The Panthers' decision to take their home game to Bathurst didn't pay dividends, with Penrith squandering a golden opportunity to cement a top four finish after an 18-16 loss at Carrington Park.
The Panthers came into the round in equal second position with the Bulldogs, just two points off competition frontrunners Manly, but the second major upset of the round may just prove costly for Ivan 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 seen a four-point buffer between the Panthers and the fifth-placed Roosters.
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 part of this season, who inspired Cronulla to just their fifth win of the season 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 frontrower this season.
Things could have been a lot worse for Penrith if halfback Peter Wallace failed to come back on the field after picking up an ankle problem in his return from injury
Wallace had missed the Panthers' past two games after suffering separate knee and ankle injuries in the round 17 win against Penrith at Leichhardt Oval, and was again taken from the field in the first half after picking up a knock.
But after receiving an injection, Wallace returned to the field later in the second half to try and steer his team around the park, although it wasn't enough to turn the tide.
Luke Lewis celebrated his first game against his former club with a win, but it was ex-Panthers Michael Gordon and Wade Graham, in combination with Fifita, who tormented the Panthers most.
Penalties and mistakes gifted the Sharks several repeated sets attacking the Panthers line early in the match, and after seven minutes of applied pressure, Jacob Gagan leapt above Kevin Naiqama to score first points from a Jeff Robson kick.
Trailing 6-0, the Panthers hit back through Dallin Watene-Zelezniak after Dean Whare showed some silky skills to put his winger in for Penrith's first try of the afternoon.
After Soward failed to convert Penrith's opening four-pointer, the Sharks extended their lead when Michael Gordon dived over against his former club, the second Cronulla try to come off the boot of Robson.
Gagan bagged a double shortly after when the Sharks managed to exploit a shortage of Panthers defenders down their left edge to take a 14-4 lead in the 29th minute.
But the Panthers hit back through Kevin Naiqama to reduce the half-time deficit to four points, with the former Knights speedster finishing off some nice lead up work from Wallace and fullback Matt Moylan.
A mountain of possession for Penrith to start the second half proved too difficult for the Sharks to overcome, with Whare crossing in the corner to give the Panthers a 16-14 lead in the 54th minute.
Just when it looked like the Sharks might nod off, a barnstorming Andrew Fifita burst through a tackle from Whare and Jamal Idris to put Sam Tagataese over for a 18-16 lead with 19 minutes remaining.
Cronulla Sharks 18 (J Gagan 2 M Gordon S Tagataese tries M Gordon goal) Penrith Panthers 16 (K Naiqama D Watene-Zelezniak D Whare tries J Soward 2 goals) at Carrington Park. Referee: Adam Devcich, Henry Perenara. Crowd: 8,824
- Sydney Morning Herald
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