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Prime time: Townsend kicks Sharks into grand final qualifier

Sydney Morning Herald logo Sydney Morning Herald 14/09/2018 Christian Nicolussi

Up, up Cronulla: Chad Townsend jumps into the arms of Matt Moylan after the Sharks' victory. © AAP Up, up Cronulla: Chad Townsend jumps into the arms of Matt Moylan after the Sharks' victory. Nathan Cleary, rugby league's fresh-faced poster boy, pushed a field goal to the left of the posts as a thrilling Penrith fightback fell just short.

Cronulla emerged 21-20 victors to book a spot in the preliminary final against Melbourne.

But they did it the hard way after leading 18-0 late in the first half on Friday night, only for the Panthers to charge home with three tries in the second half in another Friday night thriller.

A short kick-off at the perfect time by Val Holmes was another huge turning point.

The Sharks will back themselves down south given their good record against the premiers in their own backyard. But they will be sweating on the fitness of skipper Paul Gallen, who missed the final half hour with a corked shoulder.

Club officials were hoping to rush Gallen in for scans late Friday night.

"He can usually get it strapped up and battle on, but for him not to come back in a big semi-final, it was a bit concerning,'' Cronula coach Shane Flanagan said.

"Let's hope it's not as bad as first thought.''

Pressing the flesh: Prime Minister Scott Morrison hugs Chad Townsend after his heroics at Allianz Stadium. © AAP Pressing the flesh: Prime Minister Scott Morrison hugs Chad Townsend after his heroics at Allianz Stadium. With back-up skipper Wade Graham already gone for the season with a knee injury, Flanagan could be forced to turn to Melbourne Public Enemy No. 1 Andrew Fifita to wear the captain's armband should Gallen not be right.

Luke Lewis also struggled with calf soreness, but is expected to play, while late scratching Josh Dugan is ''50/50'' to overcome a shoulder concern.

When Panthers giant Billy Kikau steamed downfield, charged over the top of Holmes and then passed to Waqa Blake to score, the 19,211 fans at Allianz Stadium strapped in for a brilliant final 12 minutes.

Chad Townsend stepped up with his first field-goal attempt, only to have it charged down. But the Sharks No. 7 made sure of his second attempt to give the Shire boys a vital lead with six minutes remaining.

When the Panthers re-gathered the ball from the kick-off, they eventually worked the ball to Cleary, who took his time and struck it sweetly.

But the ball sailed to the left as he put his hands on his head in disbelief. The image of Cleary's heartache was tough to watch on the giant TV screens inside the soon-to-be-demolished Moore Park venue.

"He comes up with a really big play chasing Peach's kick [for a try], and if he doesn't do that, we're not there going for a field goal,'' James Maloney said.

Night to remember: Chad Townsend dives over for Cronulla. © AAP Night to remember: Chad Townsend dives over for Cronulla.

Caretaker coach Cameron Ciraldo, who would not surprise if he becomes the permanent coach, chimed in and said: "Without Nathan, we're not in this position and there at the back end of the game tonight.

"Nathan will win us plenty of games with field goals, and we didn't lose tonight because of him.''

The Panthers have made a habit of storming home late this year and more often than not winning. But for a third straight season, their luck ran out in the second week of September.

Cronulla were brilliant in the first half, completing at 85 per cent and running riot all over their westie rivals. Matt Moylan was having a blinder and winning the much-hyped battle of the No. 6s.

Moylan set up two tries and his short kicking game forced a few dropouts.

He also came up with a try-saving tackle on Isaah Yeo in the fourth minute, and Cronulla were able to score a minute later through Townsend.

Penrith could not hold on to the ball and trailed 18-0 after almost as many minutes.

Maloney was also lucky to avoid being placed on report for a cannonball tackle on Matt Prior, which was labelled ''dangerous and unnecessary'' by referee Ashley Klein. Gallen was overheard asking Klein ''how is that not on report?''

When Sosaia Feki chased hard after another Moylan kick and dragged Christian Crichton over the sideline, it looked like being an absolute blowout.

Moylan forced a couple of dropouts and then drifted across field and had Maloney in two minds before his pass sent veteran Lewis on a short gallop for his own four-pointer.

Penrith needed points of some sort before the break but struggled to hold on to the ball, completing at a shocking rate of nine from 16.

The Panthers, however, started with plenty of energy in the second half, and were over for a try when Holmes allowed a Tyrone Peachey grubber to roll deep before Cleary raced through and scored.

The mountain men also muscled up in defence – James Fisher-Harris' monster hit on Holmes was one highlight – and looked ready to give the Sharks fans and players stomach ulcers.

They lost no admirers in the loss and the focus will now turn to who actually coaches them in 2019. The other pressing matter will be locking up Cleary on a long-term deal.

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