The Sharks may have been without James Maloney, and the Warriors may have been without Shaun Johnson, but there was no lack of dynamism in the halves when Cronulla took on New Zealand at Mount Smart on Friday night. With Fa’amanu Brown putting down a try and Mason Lino assisting with a try, much of the game stood or fell on how well the reconfigured 6 and 7 combinations could gel with the rest of the team, while injuries to Bodene Thompson and then Brown raised the stakes considerably in the second stanza.
The visitors put down the first points three minutes in, with Chad Townsend sending through a neat little grubber right on the line and Kurt Capewell simply outrunning Ken Maumalo and Solomone Kata to get the Steeden to ground, despite the fact that he had started from further out. It was a pretty dispiriting start for the Warriors, not simply because the Sharks had scored first at Mount Smart, but because it had occurred so early, had occurred the first time the Sharks got down the New Zealand end and – perhaps most damningly – had occurred because Cronulla simply seemed to want it more, with Maumalo and, to a lesser extent, Kata, having had ample time to clean up the ball before Capewell crashed over.
New Zealand had to wait nearly half an hour before they responded with their own four-pointer, and during that time they tried virtually every combination as the Sharks tightened the pressure. Shortly after their opening try, a perfectly pitched kick from Nu Brown trapped Roger Tuivasa-Sheck at the back of the in-goal area, a reminder that it’s not just Townsend who can bring home goal-line dropouts when things get tough. RTS made up for it a couple of minutes later, however, when Andrew Fifita put in an astonishing show of strength to outleap the New Zealand defence and capture Townsend’s high ball and crash over beneath the posts, all in one massive motion, only for the Warriors fullback to slam in and knock the ball out of his hands before he could put down four more points.
Twice over the next fifteen minutes the hosts came close to a try, and twice Luke Lewis put in some of the best defensive moves of the night to prevent it happening. Eighteen minutes in, the Warriors put in one of their strongest sets so far, replete with a series of big hit-ups from Matulino, Afoa, Lillyman and Thompson, only for Lewis to take Foran down before he could consolidate the momentum with a fifth-tackle kick. Five minutes later, Issac Luke appeared to have slammed over the line, and the refs tentatively called a try, only for the bunker to show that Lewis had put in an amazing effort to get his hand beneath the Steeden, and keep it there, throughout Luke’s entire trajectory.
As the half hour mark approached, however, a high tackle from Lewis on Lillyman sparked what initially looked to be a sustained period of field position for the Warriors, especially once they received a second penalty right on the line following a terrific offload from Matulino to Afoa. It was a archetypal moment, then, when New Zealand coughed up the Steeden right on the line, and with the hosts unable to score even off a pair of back-to-back Cronulla penalties it was clear that someone on the Warriors side needed to make a display of individual initiative in order to put New Zealand on the board.
At the twenty-eighth minute, Kata did just that, intercepting a pass from James Segeyaro to Gerard Beale, bobbling it and then securing possession, before tucking the ball under his arm and launching down the left side of the field, with only Beale standing the remotest chance of bringing him to ground. It was the cathartic moment the Warriors needed, and all the more powerful in that this was quite an uncharacteristic four-pointer for Kata, who tends to opt for short-range bursts of strength, rather than this kind of whole-field play.
With the Warriors adding the extras, they finally seemed to be back in the game, and yet it was only a couple of minutes before the Sharks managed to respond – and to respond with the same kind of try. Fumbling a pass thirty metres out from the New Zealand line, Mason Lino left himself wide open for Brown to slam in and collect the loose ball, and from there, the stand-in half ran down the field as impressively as Kata had moments before.
While he may not have ran as far, the fact that he dodged his way through the ruck and took advantage of such a disheveled Warriors defence made his four-pointer just as impressive, and possibly even more so, especially with his final right foot pivot around RTS’ last line of defence. It was a painful reminder of Johnson’s absence from the field, while the brevity of the Warriors surge – and the near symmetry of the Sharks’ try – made for an even more painful reminder of just how mercurial and unpredictable they can be as a team, along with their issues with consolidating momentum, even or especially at their home venue.
The Sharks got a penalty goal to start the second stanza, but the Warriors started to apply some pressure about five minutes in, thanks to a pair of back to back goal line dropouts. The first came off a brilliant chip, chase and tackle from Lino, who popped the ball forward and then followed it to instigate the tackle that trapped Feki in the in goal area and ensured a fresh set of six for New Zealand. At the end of the next set, Thompson, of all people, grubbered over to the right corner, where the Steeden once again found Feki.
Although it stood up just in front of the line, Feki seemed spooked by the previous goal line dropout, and so made the unusual choice of booting the ball into touch, rather than cleaning it up and trying to get back into the field of play. Given that Lino and Thompson had been responsible for this sustained period of possession and field position, it felt apt that they turned out to be the try assister and tryscorer respectively on the following set, with Lino collecting the ball from Foran and then running right up to the Cronulla line, drawing the defence in before popping a short ball over to Thompson, who threaded through the smallest of spaces to put down four more points for the Warriors.
While Thompson’s versatility and dexterity is always a galvanising spectacle for the team, it was Lino’s efficiency in the no. 7 jersey that was most encouraging from this sequence of play (especially given his involvement with Brown’s earlier four-pointer) with his try assistance stretching far beyond the try assist itself, right back to his timing and judgement that had set up the first goal line dropout. With Luke slotting the ball through the posts, the Warriors were back within two points of the visitors.
In classic Warriors fashion, however, they were their own worst enemies a couple of minutes later, when the slipperiness of the Steeden confounded Luke as he was collecting it from the play-the-ball, returning possession to the Sharks just as New Zealand were starting to consolidate their newfound momentum. To make matters worse, Thompson tried to replicate his brilliant kick on the other side of the field at the fifty-seventh minute, only for Beale to make it back with the ball into the field of play, and Thompson to leave the field with what appeared to be a pectoral injury after sending out an arm to try and stop him.
If Thompson’s injury was dispiriting for the Warriors, then Brown’s was downright disturbing for the Sharks, with the young half copping a knee to the head from Sam Lisone due to some unlucky timing in the midst of a tackle a couple of minutes later. While Lisone didn’t deserve to be put on report for what was clearly an accidental movement, you could see why the refs felt the need for some kind of formal response, since this was one of the most brutal injuries in weeks, with Brown momentarily appearing to lose consciousness and drooling as the refs tried to revive him on the field.
Once he came around, and the ambulance officers had given the team the thumbs up, attention shifted to the loss of his playmaking abilities, especially since he’d scored the last try for the Sharks and been a critical part of their game plan in Maloney’s absence. As if drawing upon Brown’s orchestration of the first and only goal line dropout for Cronulla across the course of the evening, Townsend made a play for another set of six a couple of minutes later, threading the Steeden through the New Zealand defence with extraordinary dexterity, with Fifita coming close, once again, to putting down points, only for Foran to arrive at the ball just in time to smash it into touch.
Often the loss of a significant player forces a team to consolidate even more, and so it was with Cronulla on the repeat set, with Townsend, Graham and Holmes putting in such a pitch-perfect succession of passes that it was almost like witnessing a training run at Shark Park, with Leutele popping into the line for a catch-and-pass to Feki, who stormed up the left side to put down four more points for his team.
All in all, this was probably the most symbolically significant try of the night, not merely because Feki used to play for the Warriors, or because Brown had just been taken off the field shortly before, but because as the catalyst for two goal line dropouts Feki’s judgement and dexterity had been peculiarly implicated in Lino’s try, with the result that it must have been especially cathartic for him to put down his own four points at this critical juncture in the game, with less than twenty minutes left on the clock.
With eight points between them and the Sharks, the Warriors needed a powerful and convincing show of leadership to get back in the game. At first, RTS appeared to have provided just that, reading the bounce on Holmes’ high ball superbly and gathering the Steeden tight into his chest. Unfortunately, the Cronulla fullback was there to tackle it from him, while the refs deemed that RTS had been ahead of Holmes during the kick anyway, turning what might have been a tipping-point for the Warriors into yet another penalty.
With that sudden shift in momentum, it was only a matter of time before the Sharks went over again, and they did so with possibly their most galvanising display of strength over the entire game. All night, Fifita had been raring for a try, and while he might not have got his opportunity this time, he appeared to put all his frustrated energy into his single biggest hit-up, replete with a brilliant offload to boot, with the ball finding his no. 10, who stormed up to the line. There, he offloaded, only for the ball to miss its mark and hit the turf, with Bukuya displaying some quick thinking to speed forward, scoop it up and slam into the Warriors defence.
In an original spin on the twist-and-spin, Bukuya starting spiraling in the middle of the tackle, rather than before it, almost arriving at a double movement, but actually just busting through a tackle more courageously than any other player over the course of the evening. It was the perfect way for the Sharks to assert their supremacy over the Warriors, who from this point on became somewhat deflated, and didn’t manage to put down any further points. Neither did the Sharks, but a 26-12 lead and the spectacle of that final slam from Bukuya were more than enough for them to hold their heads, especially in the wake of Brown being sent off the field, and there’s no doubt they’ll be looking to invoke some of the same grit when they take on the Raiders at home next week.