It was billed as the clash between Matt Moylan and James Maloney but Chad Townsend made the decisive impact in Cronulla’s thrilling 21-20 win over Penrith on Friday evening.
Moylan and Maloney swapped clubs at the end of 2017 and it was the former who clearly won the battle with an impressive display.
But it was his halves partner, Townsend, who sealed victory against the fast-finishing Panthers with a crucial 75th-minute field goal.
The Sharks led 18-0 after 30 minutes but almost coughed up their significant advantage in a dramatic clash at Allianz Stadium that had it all.
Penrith had a late chance to level proceedings, too, but Nathan Cleary hooked his field goal attempt as the Sharks hung on.
Townsend nails it and the Sharks lead 21-20. #NRLSharksPanthers
— Wide World of Sports (@wwos) September 14, 2018
Cronulla’s reward for victory is a preliminary final against reigning premiers Melbourne Storm next Friday.
Moylan said the win was extra sweet given that it came against his old side.
The former Penrith captain told the Nine Network that he set himself for playing against the Panthers since making the switch.
“It’s something that I’ve wanted to focus on this year,” Moylan said.
“Every time we played them, I wanted to get the result. The boys done an outstanding job tonight.”
Moylan set up two tries for Cronulla and Sharks coach Shane Flanagan said he had seen a difference in his star half during the week.
“He [Moylan] thrives on playing Penrith, I know,” he said.
“You can see a little bit of change in the way he moves and trains and talks during the week.
“A lot of players are like that when they’re playing their old club. He’s no different.”
Cronulla made a fast start, with Townsend crossing for the game’s first try in just the fourth minute.
Moylan’s cross-field bomb then led to Valentine Holmes’ 14th minute try before Luke Lewis crossed in a moment Maloney will not want to see again.
The Penrith star’s attempt at a tackle was flimsy at best and Lewis – after receiving a short ball from Moylan – crashed over to help the Sharks to an 18-point advantage.
It was all smooth-sailing for Cronulla, who led 18-2 at the break, until Holmes allowed the ball to bounce in-goal and was caught out by the fast-thinking Cleary in the 48th minute.
And Cleary’s try sparked the Panthers, with Isaah Yeo and Waqa Blake adding tries of their own in three crazy minutes.
Penrith have made a habit of big comeback wins in 2018 and Blake’s try, and the resultant conversion, saw scores locked at 20-20.
That set up a grandstand finish and it was Townsend who delivered under pressure, booking Cronulla’s place in the last four.
“Absolutely gutted to go out like that,” Cleary said afterwards.
“The boys put in so much hard work, especially in that game to come back from that half-time deficit, just couldn’t ice it at the end … just weren’t good enough.”
Cronulla’s win may have come at a cost, with Paul Gallen unable to return to the field after suffering a second-half shoulder injury.
Luke Lewis (calf) is also in doubt for next week.
“My shoulder got jammed up early in the second half. Lost feeling. I’ve just got no strength in it,” Gallen said.
“It’s my rotator cuff, which I haven’t got any movement or strength in … it’s not too good at the moment.
“I couldn’t go back on … I couldn’t even lift my arm above my head … fingers crossed it can settle down.”
The Sharks will travel to Melbourne next week full of confidence, knowing they beat the Storm at AAMI Park only last month.
Cronulla – who also beat Melbourne on home soil in March – won the August clash 17-14 with Valentine Holmes particularly impressive.