A 79th minute field goal from unwanted halfback Shaun Johnson has delivered Cronulla a dramatic 19-18 victory over a depleted Penrith.
The Sharks appeared to have blown an 18-0 lead on Friday night when the Matt Burton-inspired Panthers roared back with three straight tries in the second half.
But Johnson, who could be on the search for a new club, nailed the game-winner from 35 metres out to seal a thrilling win.
It breathes new life into Cronulla’s season, which looked dead and buried three weeks ago when caretaker Josh Hannay took over from John Morris and lost his first five games in charge.
But, having settled on a new halves combination of Johnson and a reborn Matt Moylan, the Sharks are now in their best form of the year and are on the cusp of a shock move into the top eight.
It was a brave fightback from the Panthers, who were without five of their State of Origin stars in Nathan Cleary, Jarome Luai, Brian To’o, Isaah Yeo and Kurt Capewell.
Burton orchestrated the comeback with two tries, but in the end coach Ivan Cleary may rue his decision to rest his big-name contingent.
The ladder leaders have now dropped two straight for the first time since August 2019 and could lose top spot to Melbourne by the end of the round.
Plenty of eyebrows were raised when Moylan was named as the man to partner 2022 recruit Nicho Hynes in the halves by incoming coach Craig Fitzibbon next season.
But Moylan showed why he’s been given the nod.
The former Blues star made his presence felt early against his former club, sending Ronaldo Mulitalo into the backfield with a sharp cutout on their own 20-metre line.
The test was when Mulitalo drew in the fullback and found his supporting five-eighth, who stretched his dodgy hamstring by beating a field of three chasers on a 55-metre sprint to the line.
“Striding out for 55 metres would’ve given him the world of confidence,” former Cronulla captain Paul Gallen said on Channel Nine.
It certainly gave his teammates plenty of confidence as they took full advantage of an out-of-sorts Penrith side to surge to a commanding three-try halftime lead.
Moylan was followed in by Johnson following Briton Nikora’s aerial take, and capped off with Mulitalo’s acrobatic finish to end the half.
However, whatever Cleary said in the sheds worked wonders for his side, who put the home side on the Netstrata Jubilee Stadium ropes for most of the second period.
Three times they got over the line only to be denied, before Burton finally got the visitors on the scoreboard with a left foot stop in the 58th minute.
A try to impressive rookie forward Izack Tago and another to Burton set up a grandstand finish, only for Johnson to step up in the clutch.
Penrith hooker Api Koroisau would’ve been bursting to get onto the field after being an unused 18th man for NSW in Wednesday’s State of Origin romp over Queensland.
But any opportunity to play in game two might be taken out of Fittler’s hands after Koroisau was twice put on report, first for a lifting tackle on Aaron Woods, and then for tripping Shaun Johnson.
The one Panther who did back up was second-rower Liam Martin, who was injected midway through the first half but couldn’t stop the relentless waves of Shark attacks.
Sharks duo Will Chambers and Andrew Fifita were also on report in the second half.