Townsend boots Sharks into prelim final
The Cronulla Sharks are 80 minutes away from the Grand Final after a Chad Townsend field goal sealed an intense 21-20 victory over the Penrith Panthers at Allianz Stadium.
Cronulla went into half-time with a comfortable 18-2 lead but the Panthers lived up to their reputation as the NRL's comeback kings to create a classic finish.
The Sharks now head to Melbourne next week to take on defending premiers the Storm in a mouthwatering preliminary final.
Along with Townsend, five-eighth Matt Moylan was brilliant as he set up two tries and kicked beautifully to help end the season of his former club.
But the win came at a cost for the Sharks. Captain Paul Gallen exited the field in the second half with a shoulder injury that has him in doubt for the Storm clash, while Luke Lewis sustained an ankle problem.
It was all the Sharks in the opening stages and Moylan began like a man possessed, pulling off a textbook ball-and-all tackle to halt rampaging Panthers back-rower Isaah Yeo metres out from the try-line.
After surviving that early Penrith raid, the Sharks advanced into Penrith territory and scored with their first attacking opportunity.
Prop Andrew Fifita powered through half a gap before throwing a dexterous offload for halfback Townsend to step his way across the stripe.
Fullback Valentine Holmes added the extra two points and Cronulla was up 6-0 after six minutes.
Holmes booted a penalty goal minutes later but the Sharks were hungry for tries.
And they claimed a second four-pointer when Sosaia Feki soared high and batted a Moylan cross-field kick into the arms of Townsend, who then found Holmes in support.
After touching down for his 22nd try of the season, the No.1 successfully converted.
The best of the first half was yet to come for the Sharks – and it was the retiring Luke Lewis who provided the magic.
A play after being flattened as he attempted to make a tackle, the back-rower inspired his team with a mammoth hit on Waqa Blake that forced an error.
The 35-year-old then pushed the Sharks further ahead, running a beautiful line and racing 25 metres to score after a lovely flat pass from Moylan.
While Holmes missed the goal, Cronulla's advantage was out to an imposing three converted tries.
Penrith set up camp in the Sharks' 20-metre zone as half-time approached but the blue wall didn't crack, though a penalty goal on the buzzer allowed the mountain men to open their account.
The Panthers struck 10 minutes into the second stanza to give themselves a sniff.
Nathan Cleary grounded the ball from under Holmes' nose as the Cronulla custodian willed a well-weighted Tyrone Peachey kick to go dead in-goal.
Sharp-shooter Cleary had no issues with the conversion and reduced the margin to 10.
Another Holmes penalty goal gave the Sharks breathing room at 20-8, but it was only brief.
The Panthers refused to throw in the towel and when Yeo nabbed a converted try the difference was just six with 13 minutes to play.
Soon the scores were level. Penrith second-rower Billy Kikau crashed into the clear on the left edge and offloaded to provide Blake with a try.
Cleary added the extras to make it 20-all.
A daring short kick-off from the Sharks earned them possession in prime territory. Townsend attempted a field goal but his shot was charged down and Penrith came up with the ball.
But the Sharks half wouldn't have to wait long for a second crack. This time, he made no mistake and Cronulla led by one.
The drama was nowhere near finished. Penrith employed the short kick-off tactic to great effect, collecting the footy in fantastic position.
Cleary then fired off a field goal stab that was skewed wide. The NSW halfback had one last attempt from 50 metres as the siren rang out.
It missed, and Cronulla escaped to advance to a preliminary final.