The Cronulla Sharks' quest for a top four spot continues when they take on Penrith at Panthers Stadium tomorrow night.
After defeating the Warriors a fortnight ago, the Sharks enjoyed a weekend off with a bye last round. Coach Shane Flanagan said his squad is now rested and eager to rip in against the high-flying Panthers, who Cronulla defeated 26-22 in Round 7.
"The bye week was good. The boys got a bit of time to get away and take their minds off footy for a weekend at least. They came back all refreshed and ready to go," said Flanagan.
In fantastic news for the Sharks, Valentine Holmes will line up at fullback just two days following his starring performance in Queensland's Origin III win.
"He'll be fine. A bit sore and tired, but he played a great game and a great series ... He scored some great tries and his defence yesterday was outstanding as well," said Flanagan.
"He'll come off that Origin series – even though Queensland lost – with a positive mindset that he played well."
Further strengthening the Sharks' side is the return of co-captain Wade Graham from a cheekbone fracture. However, star centre Josh Dugan won't play due to a persistent leg injury.
The Panthers are also sans some key personnel. NSW Origin halves Nathan Cleary and James Maloney will be rested, while fellow Blues player Tyrone Peachey is named on an extended bench. International front-rower Reagan Campbell-Gillard (broken jaw) remains in the casualty ward.
Tyrone May and Jarome Luai will cover in the halves, like they did last round, and young fullback Caleb Aekins is slated to debut.
Regardless of the firepower sitting out, Flanagan stressed that Cronulla won't underestimate Penrith. The 'Mountain Men' were without their representative players last weekend and produced a thumping 36-4 demolition of the Warriors. Luai was the mastermind behind the victory.
"We've seen the way they played last week, and we've seen when we put young players in they rise up to the challenge. It's a young man's game these days," said Flanagan.
"I'm sure their young blokes will stand up. We just need to focus more so on us rather than too much on who's playing for Penrith."
Hulking prop Aaron Woods has been selected to come off the bench for his second game in Sharks colours. Woods was strong in his club debut against the Warriors in Round 16, and Flanagan is confident the marquee mid-season signing will only get better as he adapts to the Sharks' style.
"The bye week was good for him. He had an opportunity to get a little bit more training in, and some stuff on the field to understand calls and some plays and build some combinations with players," said Flanagan.
"It was valuable for him to have both the game and game preparation, [so] that we could just train him for a week and he could understand what we're trying to achieve."
The result of Friday's clash could prove critical to Cronulla's top four hopes. Penrith is currently in fourth position on 24 competition points – two points ahead of the sixth-placed Sharks – and Flanagan knows how important it is to close the gap.
"We need to win these ones with sides that are in that top eight ... We need to stay with that top four and we can't let them kick away, otherwise it's just too hard at the tail-end of the year," he said.
"You just want to get into that top four in the next month. If you're in the top four in the last month of the competition, you're a real good chance to stay there. That's our goal."
Kick-off between Cronulla and Penrith tomorrow is at 6pm. The gates at Panthers Stadium open at 4pm.
NRL Team List – Round 18
Sharks v Panthers
Friday, July 13
Kick-off – 6pm
1 Valentine Holmes
2 Sione Katoa
3 Jesse Ramien
4 Ricky Leutele
5 Edrick Lee
6 Matt Moylan
7 Chad Townsend
8 Andrew Fifita
9 Jayden Brailey
10 Matt Prior
11 Kurt Capewell
12 Wade Graham
13 Paul Gallen
14 Joseph Paulo
15 James Segeyaro
16 Aaron Woods
17 Jayson Bukuya
18 Scott Sorensen
20 Sosaia Feki
Tale of the Tape
Sharks 48 wins
Panthers 38 wins
Previous result: Sharks won 26-22 at Southern Cross Group Stadium, Round 7, 2018
Points per game: Sharks 19.5, Panthers 22
Points conceded per game: Sharks 17.6, Panthers 15.3