BlueBet Stadium: A Jarome Luai try in the 78th minute finally started the Penrith party.
The premiers momentarily moved 10 points clear of their rivals on the ladder with a 20-10 win over a spirited Cronulla on Saturday night.
The Sharks lost no admirers despite defeat. They led 10-0 early on and remain genuine top-four contenders.
They were unhappy they did not receive a vital penalty for a suspected shoulder charge by Viliame Kikau on Connor Tracey late in the game, with Wade Graham still arguing with referee Ashley Klein after full-time.
“That’s a shoulder charge every day of the week, and we get f— all,” Graham told Klein.
But with seven Origin players returning from an extended break, the Panthers proved too good. It was their 17th win in 18 games, and their ninth straight victory.
Jarome Luai crosses the line for the Panthers.Credit:NRL Photos
Api Koroisau and Nathan Cleary in particular stood tall for Penrith. The only disappointment was a heavy concussion suffered by Stephen Crichton.
Crichton was thumped by Dale Finucane, who raced out of the line and flattened his NSW teammate.
The centre was out before he hit the ground, sparking a melee that involved nearly every player at BlueBet Stadium.
Cleary asked why Finucane was not sent off for a swinging arm as the crowd chanted “off, off, off”, but Klein was satisfied it was only a head clash and ordered Penrith to play the ball. The match official at one stage ordered the players to take their push and shove elsewhere because they were crowding Crichton as he tried to receive medical attention.
A dazed Stephen Crichton walks from the field.Credit:Getty
Kikau was a handful on his left edge and produced a bell-ringer on Toby Rudolf. Koroisau laid on Penrith’s first try for Izack Tago, while Cleary’s kicking game made sure the Sharks were on the back foot for long passages of the game.
Tracey ducked back infield and evaded five Penrith defenders to open the scoring, then former Panthers favourite Matt Moylan dived over under the posts, despite there being question marks about whether he planted the ball before the line.
The fact Moylan went for a second effort to get the ball down had the 17,426 fans convinced he had come up short, but the try was awarded.
The Panthers were entitled to take a little bit to crank into gear because of the number of players who returned to training only 48 hours before the game.
While they may not have created genuine try-scoring opportunities, Koroisau and Cleary kept the hosts in control.
A long-range try straight after half-time, which was finished by Dylan Edwards, put Penrith in front. It was a lead they never surrendered.
Penrith take on Parramatta on Friday while Cronulla host South Sydney before a run home to the finals against no other teams currently inside the top eight.
Cronulla coach Craig Fitzgibbon will be proud of what his side produced; almost as happy as his Penrith counterpart Ivan Cleary.
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