Second placed Penrith Panthers had their sights set on the top of the table as they took on a Cronulla Sharks side sat in a mid-table eighth spot. Both sides came into the game unbeaten in their last three outings, but the bookies favoured the Panthers to get the two points.
Coach Ivan Cleary made two changes to the Panthers line-up with debutant Charlie Staines and Spencer Leniu replacing To’o and Tetevano while Sharks head coach John Morris brought on Nene Macdonald for the injured Matt Moylan.
Damp conditions suggested a low scoring encounter, nothing could have prepared us for the eight points we were about to witness.
The resplendent Pink Panthers were first in as they converted their first change with Nathan Cleary passing to Brent Naden who took the ball over his left shoulder and walked over the line to score. Cleary added the conversion for a 6-0 lead.
On twelve the Panthers got their second thanks to excellent work from Viliame Kikau who fooled the Sharks defence as he feigned to pass left but moved the ball right into the hands of Liam Martin who ran the angle from eight metres out. Cleary sung his kick through the uprights.
On the next play Bradley Goodwin dropped the ball for the Sharks under the tackle as he was in the act of scoring to bomb a great chance to get back in the game. Four minutes after the missed chance for the Sharks the Panthers got their third when Stephen Crichton scored a one-handed flying try by the left corner flag off a Luai pass. Cleary missed his first conversion of the afternoon, the Panthers 16-0 ahead.
On twenty-four Charlie Staines scored a try on debut taking a Dylan Edwards pass ten metres from the line and sprinting down the wing to score unopposed. Crichton had a go with the boot but made an awful hash of it, the Sharks now 20-0 ahead. The game was already looking beyond the Sharks who had no answer to a dominant Panthers.
Staines caught and returned the kick-off with a forty metres sprint down the wing before finding Edwards inside on the Sharks forty for the full-back to accelerate over the line for the fifth try of the one-sided game. Crichton converted this time, the Sharks scoring at almost a point a minute.
The Sharks finally broke their duck on thirty-five when Briton Nikora hit the ball at speed off a Shaun Johnson pass and crashed over the line. Johnson added the conversion for 6-26. With ten seconds left on the clock Blayke Brayley scooted from acting half back and dove over the line for the Sharks second. Once again Johnson added the conversion and from nowhere the Sharks had some respectability as they went into the sheds trailing by 12-26.
Five minutes after the restart Staines got his second of the night when he was on hand wide right to take the pass from Edwards after a high kick had been knocked backwards by the Panthers. Cleary hit the near post with his conversion attempt, but Penrith had the thirty.
James Tamou was sin-binned on fifty-three for holding down in the tackle. But it was the twelve men who got the next try as Billy Burns jinked his way through a broken Sharks defence and shrugged off a high tackle to get the ball on the ground. Cleary added the conversion from close to the sticks.
Within a couple of minutes the Sharks scored their third, taking advantage of the extra man, as Jesse Ramien danced through the defensive line for his four-pointer. Johnson added the conversion to reduce the arrears back to eighteen points.
Aaron Woods was sin-binned on sixty-four after pushing over a Penrith player who was scrambling to get to the play-the-ball. From the resulting penalty Cleary added the two-pointer for 38-18.
Now playing against twelve men Stephen Crichton was on hand to complete a fast hand move to go over down the left wing. Cleary kicked the conversion as the Panthers edged closer to fifty points.
A seventieth minute breakaway try from Nene Macdonald saw the winger run sixty metres after intercepting a poor pass. Johnson added the conversion for 24-44.
Staines completed a debut hat-trick on seventy-four minutes when he took a looping pass from Tyrone May to run the angle unopposed and ground in the corner. Cleary put the conversion between the uprights to bring up the half-century at 50-24.
It was a fourth for Staines on seventy-nine as he took a flick pass from Naden to again score in the corner. It was the Panthers tenth try of the night and with Cleary kicking the conversion the Panthers had a 56-24 win.
Although the Panthers demonstrated some defensive frailty they totally dominated this game against a Cronulla Sharks side who had come into the game after showing decent form in their previous three outings. Debutant Charlie Staines must be pinching himself after a sensational debut hat-trick as he was on hand to finish some enterprising play from his teammates. The Panthers go top ahead of the rest of the round games, but it bodes well for their chance of success in 2020.
Cronulla Sharks: Dugan, Katoa, Goodwin, Ramien (T), Macdonald (T), Johnson (4G), Townsend, Woods (SB on 64), Brailey (T), Hamlin-Uele, Nikora (T), Graham, Williams. Subs: Fifita, Rudolf, Talakai, Hunt.
Penrith Panthers: Edwards (T), Mansour, Crichton (2T, G), Staines (4T), Naden (T), Luai, Cleary (6G), Tamou (SB on 53), Koroisau, Fisher-Harris, Kikau, Martin (T), Yeo. Subs: May, Lenui, Leota, Burns (T).
Referee: Ashley Klein.
Ground: Netstrata Jubilee Stadium, Sydney.