It was the great Matt Moylan-James Maloney mismatch as the Cronulla playmaker enjoyed a unanimous points victory over his Penrith opposite to pilot the Sharks to within a win of second NRL grand final in three years.
After their spicy pre-season swap, Moylan and Maloney had been the poster boys for Friday night’s eagerly awaited first-time final between the league’s two 1967 entries.
But the much-hyped duel proved a non-event as Moylan’s Sharks enjoyed the last laugh over his former club while Maloney had a shocker.
While Moylan had a hand or boot in two of Cronulla’s three tries, Maloney had a night to largely forget.
Penalised early for a cannonball tackle on former teammate Matt Prior to gift the Sharks two points, Maloney then knocked on the first time Penrith had possession in the Sharks half for 20 minutes.
But those misdemeanours had nothing on the embarrassing missed tackle that allowed Luke Lewis to steam through for Cronulla’s third try and a match-winning 18-0 lead on the half-hour.
That Lewis’s try came off a beautiful short ball from Moylan to target Maloney’s famously flimsy defence only added to the humiliation.
“At this level, in this game, to miss a tackle and not get a hand on Luke Lewis, that’s terrible,” league great Andrew Johns said in commentary.
“There’s no organisation on that edge, and that comes down to Maloney. He has to organise his edge, and as you can see, his head goes down.
“Maloney’s got to organise his inside men and his outside men, nominate who they’ve got. It’s terrible.”
And just as the Panthers finally started building some momentum to threaten a second-half fightback, it was Maloney’s concession of another penalty for an off-the-ball tackle on Sharks centre Jesse Ramien that threatened to take the wind of out his side’s sails.
He atoned somewhat with a nice short ball to put a rampaging Viliame Kikau through to set up Penrith’s game-levelling try to Waqa Blake – but for once Maloney was unable to ice a final.
If this game was the decider the Sharks destroyed Penrith in the Moylan/Maloney trade #NRLSharksPanthers
— David Lander (@Davel79) September 14, 2018
Moylan giving Maloney a master class on attack
— 🆙🦈🇪🇪🆙 Dr Shark Avenger🆙 🦈🇪🇪 🆙 (@shark_avenger) September 14, 2018
— Freddie Faraj (@MrWild01) September 14, 2018
Moylan making mince meat out of Maloney. Great defence their Jimmy 😜 #NRLSharksPanthers
— Rich (@RichOssington) September 14, 2018
Moylan bossing it. Maloney's been made to look like a mug in defence again haaaa
— Josh Howe (@JoshO567) September 14, 2018
What are they doing???
I honestly blame Maloney again. He’s just been so bad. I can barely recall a worse semi final performance.
Oh yeah, Paul Carriage. #NRLSharksPanthers
— Mr_Brown (@Mr_Brown__) September 14, 2018
A premiership winner with the Sydney Roosters in 2013 and Cronulla in 2016 and grand finalist with the Warriors in 2011, Maloney had been hoping to edge a fourth side towards another title decider to stamp himself as arguably the most influential finals playmaker of the past decade.
Instead, the NSW No.6 can start planning for Penrith’s Mad Monday.
But while Maloney will wonder what might have been, Moylan had the Midas touch.
The silky five-eighth also set up Cronulla’s second try with a cross-field bomb for Sosaia Feki and pulled off the hit of the match on Penrith fullback Dallin Watene-Zelezniak that must have also sent shudders through Panthers fans still wondering how the club let their one-time favourite son go.
The Sharks will now meet arch-rivals Melbourne at AAMI Park next Friday night in what shapes as a mouth-watering preliminary final.
However, Cronulla were dealt a big blow when skipper Paul Gallen was taken off with a shoulder problem in the 48th minute, compounding the absence of Josh Dugan (shoulder) and Wade Graham (knee).