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By Nicholas Janzen at Carrington Park

The Penrith Panthers have all but secured the 2014 VB NSW Cup Minor Premiership following a gritty victory against the Cronulla Sharks at Carrington Park in Bathurst last Saturday.

On a day that saw four seasons in one day – strong winds, heavy rain and glorious sunshine – Garth Brennan’s Panthers consolidated top spot on the VB NSW Cup ladder with their 22-14 win against the Cronulla, a triumph that stretches their lead at the top of the table to six points following second-placed Wentworthville’s last-start loss. With a bye in hand and matches against lowly Manly and North Sydney in coming weeks, Penrith look home and hosed to finish the regular season in first place.

The ‘home’ side Penrith opened the scoring just five minutes into the match when Eto Nabuli finished off a slick right-to-left backline shift that saw the ball go through the hands of David Simmons, Luke Capewell and Kieran Moss.

The Panthers stretched that lead to 10 midway through the first half after Capewell put second-rower Matt Robinson into a hole. Robinson stormed downfield before drawing Cronulla fullback Nathan Gardner and passing inside to veteran hooker Kevin Kingston who streaked away to score under the posts and gift the Panthers a 10-point lead.

The Sharks, however, responded just before half-time following a heads-up play from back-rower Tupou Sopoaga. The light-footed forward took a quick tap from a penalty and from the ensuing set of play Ben Hampton delivered a nice short ball to centre Kurt Mann on the left to burst through and score. Daniel Holdsworth’s conversion attempt was waved away and Penrith took a 10-4 lead to the break.

Penrith increased their lead just five minutes into the second half when a pinpoint Capewell cross-field kick was misjudged by Cronulla and took a few wicked bounces. The loose ball was eventually secured by Will Smith, who touched down to restore the Panthers’ 10-point advantage.

Cronulla, however, were not about to throw in the towel. Sharks forward Josh Portlock’s hard run from a short face ball cut the visitors’ deficit to six. That gap was wiped clean when Storm-contracted Cronulla winger Justin O’Neill benefitted from some smart play from Portlock and Holdsworth on the fifth tackle. O’Neill streaked into open pastures before turning the ball to Gardner to crash over. Holdsworth’s conversion tied the scores at 14.

The turning point came with 14 minutes remaining. The Sharks had the Panthers on the rack and, after being on the back foot for most of the match, looked shoo-ins to score the game’s decisive four-pointer. After some persistent pressure, Cronulla’s Jake Goodwin stormed onto a short ball from close range and looked unstoppable, but a miraculous Robinson tackle grounded the back-rower just centimetres short of the line.

Moments later from the ensuing changeover, Penrith marched downfield, took a two-point lead after Smith potted a penalty and took the wind out of the Sharks’ sails.

Cronulla had a final opportunity to steal victory, but their last-gasp chance ended with O’Neill bundled into touch by Nabuli. The Panthers had the last laugh, stretching the final margin to eight, with Wes Naiqama skirting the Sharks’ outside backs to score on the final bell.

Hard-hitting centre Waqa Blake, hooker Kevin Kingston, second-rower Robinson and utility Capewell, who was named in the front row but acted as a playmaker, were best for the Panthers, who face the Sea Eagles at Sportingbet Stadium this Saturday. The Sharks, who remain in seventh place on for-and-against despite the loss, have the bye.

Penrith Panthers 22 (W Smith, W Naiqama, E Nabuli, K Kingston tries; W Smith 3 goals) def. Cronulla Sharks 14 (N Gardner, K Mann, J Portlock tries; D Holdsworth goal) at Carrington Park, Bathurst.

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