“Clueless” Penrith's Premiership Hopes in Free Fall After Sharks Mauling.
One team’s dream to be the first team to go back-to-back premiership winners since the 1992-93 Brisbane Broncos remains very much a distinct possibility.
Another’s team premiership aspirations on the other hand are about as likely as a successful North Korean missile test (for now).
So for the team who were tagged by many as this year’s team to beat, where has it gone oh so wrong after the opening seven rounds?
For the second week in a row Cronulla's defensive effort kept their opposition scoreless. (All photos: 77 Media).
Is it coach Anthony Griffin’s somewhat perplexing decision to drop Corey Harawira-Naera and Sitaleki Akauola to the Intrust Super Premiership to play alongside marooned team-mate Viliame Kikau?
Or the decision to stick with Peta Hiku on the interchange bench and play him as an edge-forward?
Is Matt Moylan unsettled with captaincy despite having a burning desire to make it up to his team-mates for that one night out on Melbourne town?
Are our halves guilty as charged of either overplaying the spiral bomb or running it on
the last, often side-to-side in the process?
Has Tyrone Peachey’s defence at left centre deteriorated in 2017, having missed 22 tackles in just 6 games (72% efficiency) compared to 36 (at almost 91% efficiency) in 24 games in 2016?
Yeo and Wallace aside, why are Penrith forwards in general (and not just Trent Merrin and James Tamou) failing to match their 2016 performances?
Should a spot be found on the bench for in-form backup hooker, Mitch Rein?
Or is it the lack of week-to-week continuity that using 25 players in just seven rounds results in?
Are the Panthers really missing Josh Mansour and Bryce Cartwright that much in attack?
Trent Merrin's form in 2017 has yet to match the heights reached in 2016.
As much as fans and experts alike would prefer to zero in one of these issues, there is no single reason for Penrith’s perilous position after just seven rounds.
It’s the sum of many parts that has led the pre-season competition favourites down this path and only as a team and not as individuals will the team come out the other side should they want to be playing finals.
As it stands Penrith at 2 and 5 will have to create club history to make the finals, having only once after Round 7 made the finals with a less than 50% win/loss record (2016 – 3 wins 4 losses).
But provided the club doesn’t suffer a similar injury run to 2015, then the talent is there is to make history but only if they ignore the scoreboard, show patience in attack, resilience in defence and above all else, work hard - as a team.
In other words get back to playing basic football. Run, Kick, Chase, Tackle.
He might not have to resolve world peace but coach Anthony Griffin needs to resolve why his team both after the Melbourne game and now after yesterday’s game, are failing to follow the game plan, which he alludes is all about grinding out results against sides like Cronulla.
“We attacked based on what the scoreboard was saying rather than settling down and trying to build some pressure,” Griffin said.
“They (Cronulla) are a very good defensive side but clearly our attack was nowhere near what it needed to be patience-wise or more direction-wise.”
Despite having played teams 1, 2, 3 & now 4, Penrith’s try-less effort in what was their
biggest home defeat since Round 22, 2013 (36-4 v North Queensland) and the first time the side has lost three games in a row under Griffin, means the Panthers have scored just four tries in those outings.
But Griffin in response said he would be happy with the lack of points in attack if his side could show greater resilience in defence and not concede the easy points the team continues to leak.
“Games like that today (like Melbourne) their 10-8 games or two tries each type of games,” Griffin declared.
“We just haven’t got the patience at the moment with the ball and defensively we’re leaking easy tries.
“That one to Maloney and the last one to Fifita, they’re ones we should be cleaning up.
“It’s the combination of a lot of things.
“Clearly we’re not where we need to be at the moment but we just need to get back to work and fix it up.”
Sharks Prop Andrew Fifita was a handful for the Panthers in defence.
The Panthers dominated virtually all the key game stats in the first half – completions, runs, metres, line-breaks, errors and penalties.
But had only had a seventh minute Nathan Cleary penalty goal to show for it as Cronulla’s defensive resilience paid dividends at Penrith’s expense.
Apart from the inability to force a repeat set having camped inside Cronulla’s 20m zone for large periods, the warning signs in defence were also ominous having missed 22 tackles.
Tries to James Maloney (off a Chad Townsend grubber kick into the in-goal) and Sosaia Feki (off nothing more than a simple shift left that caught Penrith’s right edge napping) ensured the home side would trail 12-2 at the break.
Having let Cronulla off the hook to trail at halftime, Griffin admitted Cronulla gave Penrith a lesson on how to be patient yet ruthless in attack, as the Sharks seized then capitalised on their territorial advantage to score three more unanswered tries through Jack Bird, Paul Gallen and Andrew Fifita.
None of those tries were the result of overly brilliant pieces of play but more so were a reward for being patient and creating pressure on a defensive line that clearly has yet to earn the respect of opposing teams.
“Today we were up against quality opposition as well, they’re the premiers for a reason,” Griffin conceded.
“In the second half they were very ruthless, they were very clinical and they did a job on us today.
“They had 8 or 9 of (the first) 12 sets on our line.
“They were very patient and just wore us down but we helped them a fair bit with losing our composure.
“It wasn’t our best day.”
Matt Moylan's captaincy continues to be the subject of media speculation.
After the game, a clearly fragile skipper, Matt Moylan refuted suggestions that he is set to relinquish the captaincy, instead vowing to work hard to make it up to his team-mates in the wake of the Melbourne incident.
“It’s a role I want to do and it’s a honour to captain a club like this so nothing’s changed,” Moylan said.
“It was something brought about myself that I’ve got work through.
“Obviously it was a mistake. We missed out on an opportunity (to defeat Souths).
“We owe our teammates for what we did last week and we’ve got to repay them for the rest of the year.”
Anthony Griffin hosed down suggestions that Wallace would be installed as an interim captain to allow Moylan to concentrate on his own game, instead stating the club will do everything possible to assist the skipper regain form, which in fairness is as much to do with trying too hard to score off every play rather than picking that right moment.
“Last couple of weeks has been a tough period for everybody at the club,” Griffin stated.
“But Matt is the captain of our club and that’s not going to change from our end.
“We’ll help him develop and he’s shown a lot of strength and character over the last couple of weeks.
“I want him to be in that role.”
However Moylan may not have much time to make it up to his team-mates.
Premierships aren’t won in April but Penrith could certainly lose one if they lose away to both Parramatta and Brisbane in the coming fortnight, which would consign them to a 2 and 7 win/loss record come representative round.
PENRITH 2 (N Cleary pen goal) def. by CRONULLA 28 (J Maloney, S Feki, J Bird, P Gallen, A Fifita tries; J Maloney 4 goals) at Pepper Stadium. Crowd: 15,780. Half-time 12-2 Cronulla. Goal-kickers: N Cleary (Penrith) 1 goal from 1 attempt; J Maloney (Cronulla) 4 goals from 5 attempts.