There will be a repeat of the 2016 NRL Grand Final in this year's preliminary round after Cronulla Sharks overcame Penrith Panthers.

Townsend drop-goal decisive as Sharks hold off Panthers comeback

Chad Townsend's late drop-goal helped Cronulla Sharks book a clash with Melbourne Storm in the NRL preliminary finals thanks to an enthralling 21-20 win over Penrith Panthers on Friday.

The Sharks overcame the Storm in the 2016 Grand Final and the pair will meet again next week at AAMI Park, home of the defending champions, for a place in this year's showpiece occasion.

This contest at Allianz Stadium provided entertainment, although it looked as though the Sharks would run away with proceedings after taking an 18-0 lead thanks to scores from Townsend, Valentine Holmes and Luke Lewis.

But the Panthers came roaring back after the interval, Nathan Cleary, Isaah Yeo and Waqa Blake all crossing the whitewash. Ultimately, 80 minutes of breathless rugby came down to two drop-goals - Townsend unerring with his before Cleary hooked a close-range attempt to the left.

It was an unexpectedly nervy ending for a Sharks side that utterly dominated the opening period and broke the deadlock inside five minutes as Townsend exchanged passes with Andrew Fifita to go over.

Holmes slotted the extras and added a penalty before crossing for his side's second try after Sosaia Feki kept Matt Moylan's high kick in play. Lewis surged over from a beautiful Moylan pass for the Sharks' third score and only Cleary's penalty got the Panthers on the board with the final act before half-time.

Cleary capitalised on Holmes' hesitation to dot down and start the revival, briefly halted by Holmes' penalty, before Yeo crashed over and then Blake put the finishing touches on Viliame Kikau's scintillating run and dismissive hand-off of Holmes.

Cleary's third conversion levelled the scores but, with Townsend slotting his drop-goal over six minutes from time, the Panthers' half-back could not follow suit and send the game to extra-time, allowing the Sharks to celebrate a looming reunion with the Storm.

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