Consecutive wins over the Bulldogs, Sea Eagles and last week the Titans has seen the Sharks deservedly receive plenty of accolades for turning their season in a positive direction.
After a slow start, the back to back victories have moved the Cronulla side into the top eight for the first time this season, but if they have any ambition to stay there, will need to take their game to another level on Saturday afternoon when they face arguably one of the NRL’s best performed teams of 2020 in the Penrith Panthers.
In a match scheduled for a 3.00pm kick off at Kogarah’s Jubilee Stadium, the Sharks are under no illusions as to the task confronting them this weekend against a Panthers side which has six wins and a draw from their eight games this year.
“It’s certainly a great test for us to see where we are at,” Sharks skipper Wade Graham said. “Penrith have been playing great footy, a free-flowing game. It’s been good to watch.
“It will be a great challenge for us and I’m looking forward to it.”
While the Panthers come into the game in a rich vein of form, the Sharks would also like to think they have been building and improving in recent weeks, culminating in a 28-0 second half performance against Titans.
Graham put it down to team cohesion and being able to field almost the same 17 players three weeks in a row.
“We’ve had a little bit of consistency with the players we’ve been able to keep on the park. Keeping a similar squad on the paddock helps the team develop,” he said.
“We’re trending in the right direction as a team, everyone is improving and everyone is getting a better understanding of how we’re trying to play and what we’re trying to achieve.”
Unfortunately for the Sharks that consistent team sheet about which Graham talks sees one major change this weekend with the injury suffered by fullback Matt Moylan.
His omission, with Moylan set to spend at least four weeks on the sideline, has resulted in the switch of Josh Dugan to fullback, the versatile Siosifa Talakai coming into the starting side in the centres.
Young gun Ronaldo Mulitalo, named on Tuesday to make his return after minor knee surgery some five weeks ago, has been given another week to regain 100 per cent fitness and has been left out of the Sharks 19-man squad.
While playing strongly and settling nicely into his role in the centres, Dugan was sympathetic towards Moylan and his situation but was happy to make the move and to do whatever was necessary in the best interests of the team.
“I haven’t done a lot of work at the back, but I’ve played most of my career there, so it’s second nature,” Dugan said. “I know all the structures of the team, know the way we defend, so I hope it’s pretty seamless.
“I feel for Matty. I know he’ll be working as hard as he has been to get back on the park as soon as he can.”
Although Dugan’s transition to fullback attracted plenty of attention, the clash of the halves will also be an intriguing one.
The Panthers combination of Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai have been outstanding in recent weeks, but so to have the Sharks pair of Shaun Johnson and Chad Townsend, with Johnson currently leading the entire NRL for most try assists with 12 on the year.
In analysing the head to head match up, the Sharks do go into the contest having won 10 of 12 against the Panthers since 2013 for what represents their best record against any team during that period of time.
However the Panthers did manage to break a seven-match losing streak against the Cronulla side in recording a 26-20 win at Penrith Park in round 20 last year.
As the home team, the Sharks have won six straight matches against the Panthers, although almost all have been close, with the past five decided by four points or less.
This will be the first match between these two clubs at Jubilee Stadium, with the Sharks record at the Kogarah ground reading 12 of 37 and just two wins from 10 matches since 2003.
The Panthers overall record at the ground is even worse, winning six of 30, with four of the six wins coming in their past five matches at the venue.
Coach John Morris spoke of the Sharks getting off to a fast start being a formula for success and having scored the opening try in their past five straight matches, Braden Hamlin-Uele doing so in the past two, his team have been following the script.
On the flip side, the Panthers have also scored the opening try in their past seven straight matches.
The Sharks 30-point win over the Titans was their biggest since mid-2018 when they defeated Newcastle 48-10 and it was also equal to their largest margin of victory in matches played in Queensland.
As for their opponents, the Panthers have lost just one of their opening eight games to start a season for just the second time since entering the top tier competition in 1967, with the only other occasion coming in 1991 in a year in which they went on to become Premiers.
And in an indication as to why they have been difficult to beat through the first eight games, the Panthers have the best completion rate at just over 83 per cent, they are making the fewest errors with 8.6 per game and forcing the equal most drop outs in the NRL with 2.3 per game (along with the Eels).
The Sharks and Panthers match gets underway at 3.00pm at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium, with the two 19-man teams listed below.
Will Kennedy and Mulitalo come out of the originally named Sharks 21-man squad.
Fullback for Sharks is number 1 Josh DuganFullback for Panthers is number 1 Dylan Edwards
Winger for Sharks is number 2 Sione KatoaWinger for Panthers is number 2 Josh Mansour
Centre for Sharks is number 3 Bryson GoodwinCentre for Panthers is number 4 Stephen Crichton
Centre for Sharks is number 4 Jesse RamienCentre for Panthers is number 21 Charlie Staines
Winger for Sharks is number 21 Nene MacdonaldWinger for Panthers is number 5 Brent Naden
Five-Eighth for Sharks is number 6 Shaun JohnsonFive-Eighth for Panthers is number 6 Jarome Luai
Halfback for Sharks is number 7 Chad TownsendHalfback for Panthers is number 7 Nathan Cleary
Prop for Sharks is number 10 Aaron WoodsProp for Panthers is number 8 James Tamou
Hooker for Sharks is number 9 Blayke BraileyHooker for Panthers is number 9 Apisai Koroisau
Prop for Sharks is number 15 Braden Hamlin-UeleProp for Panthers is number 10 James Fisher-Harris
2nd Row for Sharks is number 11 Briton Nikora2nd Row for Panthers is number 11 Viliame Kikau
2nd Row for Sharks is number 12 Wade Graham2nd Row for Panthers is number 12 Liam Martin
Lock for Sharks is number 13 Jack WilliamsLock for Panthers is number 13 Isaah Yeo
Interchange for Sharks is number 8 Andrew FifitaInterchange for Panthers is number 14 Tyrone May
Interchange for Sharks is number 14 Toby RudolfInterchange for Panthers is number 16 Moses Leota
Interchange for Sharks is number 16 Siosifa TalakaiInterchange for Panthers is number 17 Billy Burns
Interchange for Sharks is number 17 Royce HuntInterchange for Panthers is number 20 Spencer Leniu
- Referee: Ashley Klein
- Touch Judge: Todd Smith
- Touch Judge: Gavin Badger
- Video Referee: Bryan Norrie
- Senior Review Official: Jared Maxwell