When Penrith and Cronulla agreed to swap five-eighths Matt Moylan and James Maloney during the off season, it would have been farthest from anyone's mind that the two would take centre stage in the first ever finals meeting between the two clubs.
The club-swappers ran onto Allianz Stadium on Friday night in front of a disappointing 19,211 fans, knowing that only one would be playing the Storm the following week for a spot in the grand final. There was a great deal of expectation being carried by both, with the immediate future of their clubs resting largely on the quality of their performances.
Since the day Moylan packed his bags and headed for the Shire, crossing paths with the Penrith-bound Maloney, debate has raged over which club was getting the better of the deal. Maloney, the seasoned veteran, had been part of successful premiership campaigns with the Sharks and Roosters, while Moylan was at the beginning of what looked like being an outstanding career.
Maloney was reportedly unhappy with the money he was on at the Sharks, while Moylan was just plain unhappy at the Panthers. Both clubs were happy with the deal and with both making it to the semifinal, it could be argued that the move has been a success for everyone. Yet the Sharks live another day and the Panthers head off to consider next season.
Moylan clearly came out on top on the night, with the scoreboard not fully recognising the gulf between the two. Maloney had a horrible first half, while Moylan made a try-saving one-on-one tackle on a rampaging Isaah Yeo, put up the kick that led to the Sharks' second try, put Luke Lewis through a gap for their third try and generally looked dangerous whenever he had the ball.
In the first 40 minutes whenever the Sharks swept the ball to their right, it was Maloney they looked to attack. They didn't aim to run over the top of him, instead feeding off his indecision, and gorging themselves on the defensive mess he was leaving around him.
Maloney came out of the line to allow Andrew Fifita to slot through and throw a dubious inside pass to Chad Townsend for the Sharks' first try. For the Sharks' third try it was Maloney that Moylan targeted again, putting enough doubt in his mind to leave him stranded with his arms outstretched as Lewis streaked away.
In attack Maloney was overcooking, pushing too hard to make up for his errors. He dropped a ball in a tackle after running onto an inside pass, and later threw the ball well behind fullback Dallin Watene-Zelezniak. His short kicking game was off, his running ineffective and his passing game slow and predictable. He gave away some costly penalties and he was struggling to provide the lift and direction that his Panthers sorely needed.
Moylan's game wasn't entirely perfect either. He dropped the ball three times, once with the Penrith try line open in front of him, but was creating more opportunities for his team and they went to the break up 18-2. Moylan's hunger to beat the Panthers was evident to coach Shane Flanagan.
"I thought he worked really hard, he set up a try, his kick chase was fantastic, he kicked for the Valentine Holmes try... he had a hand in nearly everything, he was really good," Flanagan said after the game.
"He thrives on playing Penrith... you can see a little bit of a change in the way he moves and trains and talks during the week. I think a lot of players are like that when they play their old club."
In the second half the game turned on its head, thanks largely to the Panthers receiving a larger share of possession and a mounting injury toll to the Sharks. The Panthers scored three second-half tries, one of them from a well-timed Maloney pass to Viliame Kikau, to lock the scores at 20 apiece.
Still it was Moylan who sent the Sharks on sweeping runs down field, eventually leading to Townsend's field goal. The Panthers were screaming out for Maloney to take control, to take advantage of the weary Sharks, to land the killer blow.
With three minutes remaining, with the Panthers deep on the attack, the ball was passed back to Nathan Cleary who tried to even the scores again with a field goal of his own. That was surely the time for the experienced Maloney to take over, to call for the ball, dribble it into the in-goal, force a drop out and pile on the pressure. Cleary's missed field goal attempt gave the Sharks seven tackles to work the ball out of their half and wind down the clock.
"I think we didn't do what we wanted to do in the first half, it was a bit stop-start... we knew what we had to do and we did it in the second half," Maloney lamented after the game.
It was the tenth time in past five years that these clubs have played each other and the Panthers have only beaten the Sharks once in that time. The Sharks and Moylan are now one win away from a place in the grand final. They take on the Storm next week who they beat in the 2016 decider and they'll be confident, knowing they have a good record against them.
The Sharks and their fans can now look back at the five-eighth swap knowing without doubt that they made the right call to go with Moylan. If he can find the same enthusiasm to conquer the next two opponents, it could prove to be a premiership winning call.