Semi Final Preview - Sharks v Panthers
It's do-or-die for the Cronulla Sharks when they face the Penrith Panthers in an elimination semi-final at Allianz Stadium on Friday night.
The victor meets the Melbourne Storm in a grand final qualifier; the loser exits the premiership race.
And there's certainly no shortage of storylines surrounding the match.
Cronulla is without co-captain Wade Graham and centre Josh Dugan after the international forward suffered a season-ending knee injury in last weekend's 21-12 loss to the Roosters and Dugan was ruled out late on Thursday with a shoulder problem.
It means the inexperienced yet reliable Scott Sorensen – playing in his first finals series and 19th NRL match – assumes Graham's starting back-row position, Jesse Ramien slots into Dugan's spot.
Over at the foot of the mountains, Cameron Ciraldo's Panthers have strongly rebounded from a form slide following the sacking of former coach Anthony Griffin a month before the playoffs.
Penrith upset Melbourne in the last round of the regular season and then convincingly beat the New Zealand Warriors in a sudden-death final.
But the most intriguing aspect of the fixture is a showdown between Sharks five-eighth Matt Moylan and his Penrith counterpart James Maloney.
Ex-Panthers captain Moylan swapped clubs with Maloney – a key member of Cronulla's 2016 premiership win – in a massive off-season transfer.
Though it's been a talking point all year, the discussion has reached fever-pitch this week. It would be easy to get distracted by the noise but Moylan hasn't lost sight of the bigger picture.
"It's going to get written about and spoken about enough," said Moylan, the Man of the Match in Cronulla's round 18 victory over Penrith.
"We've already played each other. Obviously it's been a headline with us swapping clubs but I've just got to focus on what I've got to do for [the Sharks] to get the win."
Moylan's halves partner Chad Townsend will go head-to-head with gun Panthers No.7 Nathan Cleary.
Townsend believes the Sharks need to capitalise more often in attack after they bombed three try-scoring opportunities last Saturday.
"We created three genuine chances to score tries [in the Roosters match] and that's definitely a pleasing part that we'll take out of the game," the halfback said.
"In big games you need to execute those moments to give you the best chance of winning."
While the loss of Graham is a heavy blow for the Sharks, veteran second-rower Luke Lewis trusts Sorensen and Kurt Capewell to cover the hole.
"The good thing that we've worked on over the year and over the past few years is that it's not all about one player," Lewis said.
"Scotty Sorensen has been playing well for us and [we've got] Kurt Capewell who can come straight back into the side and fill the void where Wadeo's gone as well."
If the worst occurs and the Sharks bow out of competition on Friday, the retiring Lewis' outstanding 18-year NRL career will ironically conclude against the club he spent 12 seasons at.
The 35-year-old told reporters he's lapping up everything as the end approaches.
"I'm just taking each day as it comes, to be honest. I'm just going to try and enjoy the moment and I'm really enjoying the week," Lewis said.
"Fingers crossed it's not my last week but there's every chance it could be. So I'm just sort of sucking it all in."
Cronulla skipper Paul Gallen highlighted Penrith's off-the-cuff style of play as a threat, with the Sharks typically implementing a very structured game plan.
"How unpredictable they are is a big danger," Gallen said.
"Right across their park, Dallin [Watene-Zelezniak] at the back, [Tyrone] Peachey on one edge, [Josh] Mansour on the other side getting their sets started, and obviously they have a pretty good forward pack.
"The ad-lib footy is a hard one to stop. You can't train for it, you can't prepare for it. You've just got to be ready in the game and hopefully you can stop the offloads."
Kurt Capewell is named on the Cronulla interchange after missing the Roosters clash with a ruptured testicle.
Centre Ramien returns after missing three games with an ankle injury.
The Sharks-Panthers match is scheduled for a 7:40pm kick-off. An NRLW curtain-raiser between the Sydney Roosters and Brisbane Broncos starts at 5:15pm.
The Sharks have buses running to Allianz Stadium from Sharks Leagues Club for $15 a ticket (free for kids under four). You can buy tickets here.
NRL Team List – Semi Final
Sharks v Panthers
Friday, September 14
Kick-off – 7.50pm
1- Valentine Holmes
2- Sosaia Feki
18- Jesse Ramien
4- Ricky Leutele
5- Edrick Lee
6- Matt Moylan
7- Chad Townsend
8- Andrew Fifita
9- Jayden Brailey
10- Matt Prior
11- Luke Lewis
12- Scott Sorensen
13- Paul Gallen
14- Kurt Capewell
15- James Segeyaro
16- Aaron Woods
17- Jayson Bukuya
20- Joseph Paulo
21- Kyle Flanagan
Head-to-head: Played 90; Sharks 49 wins, Panthers 38 wins, 3 draws
Previous result: Sharks won 24-12 at Panthers Stadium in round 18
Points per game (regular season): Sharks 21.6 (6th); Panthers 21.5 (8th)
Points conceded per game (regular season): Sharks 17.6 (3rd); Panthers 19.2 (6th)
Televised: Live on Nine, Fox League