The Penrith Panthers certainly proved their mettle in Saturday’s match, giving the opposition’s defence a solid workout. Notably, it was Cameron McInnes from Cronulla who rose to the occasion, setting an NRL record with a massive 84 tackles during the 28-0 defeat the Sharks suffered at the hands of the defending champions at Blue Bet Stadium. McInnes smashed the previous record of 74, a feat achieved by Micheal Luck who had an extra 10 minutes of game play in an Anzac Day draw with the Storm back in 2009.
By half-time, McInnes had already racked up 51 tackles, paving the way to surpass Luck and make a new record. With 14 minutes to spare, he equalled Luck’s record, with the rest of the game simply being a countdown to his smashing the record.
However, this was perhaps the only bright spot in an overall abysmal night for the Sharks. They now face the daunting task of rescuing a season that seems to be sinking, exacerbated by their deficiency in the fullback position.
Their night was marred within the first four minutes when fullback Will Kennedy strained his hamstring, without even receiving a touch on the ball. Following a brave but futile attempt to soldier on for another six minutes, he was forced off the field, providing Penrith an opportunity to score a try.
Kennedy’s exit is a massive blow for the Sharks, raising questions about their ability to secure a place in the finals. An already dismal record against the upper crust of the league looks set to become worse. The central role of the fullback in modern rugby is undeniable, as exemplified by Dylan Edwards of Penrith. The extent of Kennedy’s injury and the duration of his absence remain uncertain, and equally worrying is the absence of a clear replacement. Connor Tracey served as a stand-in on Saturday; could Matt Moylan return to the number 1 jersey?
Their plight is furthered by the fact that, despite starting the summer with a glut of fullbacks – enough to justify releasing Lachlan Miller to Newcastle – their roster has been steadily depleted. Kade Dykes tore his ACL during training just days after Miller’s release and, coupled with Kennedy’s injury, the Sharks have been left in a precarious position.
Even if Kennedy does manage a speedy recovery ahead of the finals, the Sharks‘ future in the competition hangs in the balance. Other than a round 24 clash with Gold Coast, their remaining matches are against top-eight contenders, and, given their dismal track record thus far, their chances seem bleak.
Matters may be exacerbated further if Braden Hamlin-Uele, under scrutiny for a high tackle, is benched.
On a more personal level, this marks the first time Craig Fitzgibbon has suffered three consecutive losses since becoming the head coach. When the players huddled during the half-time break, he joined them, the situation marking a major challenge of his leadership.
On a brighter note, Penrith remains unmatched, with Nathan Cleary demonstrating with two try assists, a flawless kicking trajectory and a near successful field goal that he is the game’s reigning top halfback. Most admirable, however, was Penrith’s resilient defence, holding their line against Cronulla, who started the round as the most formidable attacking team in the competition, yet left without a single point.