By Nathan Beuman
The Cronulla Sharks have picked up their third straight victory, taking down a strong Penrith Panthers lineup 26-20 at Remondis Stadium.
Sharks fullback Nathan Gardner further pushed his case for an NRL call up with another standout performance, frequently breaking tackles, while playing his hand in a couple of tries.
Penrith were the first team on the board, when a high kick from the boot of Isaac John came down into the waiting arms of Panthers winger Eto Nabuli, who juggled the ball before grounding it cleanly.
Panthers five-eighth Will Smith was unable to convert the try from out wide, leaving the score at 4-0 after eight minutes.
Off the back of a penalty and great field position, Matt Prior showed his ball playing skills, putting Tim Robinson into an open gap in the 26th minute, giving the Sharks their first lead of the afternoon following Stapleton’s conversion.
Gardner looked to have been rewarded for his elusive running in the first half with a try on the right edge, but it was called back by the referee for an obstruction.
Penani Manumalealii proved his value in the starting lineup with a little grubber kick to Junior Roqica five minutes before half time, with the big second rower showing his skills by himself, kicking it into the in goal, before Manumalealii dived on it to register Cronulla’s second try.
Stapleton had no trouble with the conversion, sending the Sharks into the sheds 12-4 up at half time.
Kierran Moseley threw a massive dummy from dummy half five minutes into the second half, throwing the Cronulla markers, before darting straight up the middle to cross for his side’s first points of the half.
Will Smith had no trouble with the conversion, slotting the kick from just to the left of the uprights to bring the visitors to within two points.
The Panthers were in again just moments later, when Daniel Foster made a break down the right hand edge, passing it onto an unmarked Waqa Blake, who ran around to improve the kick, allowing Smith to convert the try and give Penrith a 16-12 lead.
To further compound the try, Travis Robinson was forced from the field with what appeared to be a broken nose.
Despite sporting a heavy bandage after also copping a whack across the nose, Nathan Stapleton was able to run 80 metres off the back of a pass that went to ground from the Panthers, scoring in the corner, before converting his own try and giving the home side a 18-16 lead with 10 minutes remaining.
The Sharks wrapped up the game five minutes from full time, when Manumalealii got the ball out to Sione Masima, who crossed just to the left of the uprights, giving Cronulla a 24-16 lead following yet another successful conversion from Stapleton.
With a penalty for a strip awarded to the home side 35 metres out from the Penrith line with under two minutes remaining, Cronulla opted to take the two points on offer, extending their lead out to 26-16.
The Panthers scored a late consolation try after re-gathering the short kickoff, before spreading it wide, allowing Kevin Naiqama to cross and make the scoreboard a little more respectable at 26-20 on the stroke of full time.
This weekend the Panthers return home to tackle the Warriors while the Sharks will enjoy the weekend off.
Cronulla Sharks 26 (T Robinson, S Masima, N Stapleton, P Manumalealii tries; N Stapleton 5 goals) def. Penrith Panthers 20 (K Naiqama, E Nabuli, W Blake, K Moseley tries; W Smith 2 goals) at Remondis Stadium.