The last time the Roosters and the Sharks met at Southern Cross Group Stadium, in Round 25 last year, the hosts seemed to have come away with a late win, only for a penalty to grant the visitors an even later win. That would have been enough to lend Friday night’s match a visceral quality, even if both teams hadn’t been desperate to prove themselves following two surprise results in Round 4. On the one hand, Cronulla had triumphed over the Storm in Melbourne, and witnessed Cameron Smith’s first sin binning, while the Chooks had suffered a shock loss to an ascendant Warriors outfit, also at home, and were anxious to dig themselves out of that hole.
As often occurs in such high-stakes games, the first twenty minutes of play was a bit frenzied and unfocused, with both teams dropping the ball at pivotal moments, momentarily making it looks like Cronulla might be in for another high penalty match. On the whole, the Sharks were stronger, and had a couple of sterling sets, but the Roosters were the first to score, thanks to a deft ten metre chip to the right corner from Cooper Cronk that saw Blake Ferguson leaping up in the air to meet it.
That kind of ball has paid dividends for Fergo so often that it was a bit surprising to see him miss the catch, with Sosaia Feki initially seeming to have got a hand to it, only to lose it right on the line, where the bounce favoured Ryan Matterson, who slammed it to ground a moment later. The Roosters didn’t wait to cross over again, thanks a a high tackle from Andrew Fifita on Jake Friend early in the subsequent tackle count, which got them back down the other end again almost immediately.
After a couple of courageous attempts at the line, the Sharks got a hand to the ball and the tackle count was once again restarted. In a moment of pure brilliance, however, Luke Keary realised that his team were already in place for a fifth-tackle option, even as the Sharks were in transition preparing for the first tackle of a new set. Glimpsing Joseph Manu on his outside, he made the ballsy move of grubbering with five more tackles to go, but it paid off, thanks to a spectacular putdown from Manu that saw him go from a massive kick chase to suddenly and abruptly kneel down in front of the dead ball line to ground it, in one of the best stop-start movements of the 2018 NRL season so far, and Manu’s single best effort of 2018.
It was clear that the Sharks had to respond with something classy, and Valentine Holmes was the man do to it, thanks to a perfectly timed pass from Trent Hodkinson to Matt Moylan on the Sydney line, and then an even more brilliant clutch pass from Moylan to his winger. Finding himself without the space to either run or grubber the footy, Moylan sent the Steeden sailing across to Holmes, defying the Roosters’ expectations as thoroughly as Keary’s boot had defied the Sharks a few sets before.
If Moylan’s pass was spectacular, then Holmes’ catch was even better, with the Queensland representative catching the Steeden just as it hit the ground. So low, late and well-timed was his collection that it was almost impossible to discern whether or not the footy had hit the turf or not – a play that at regular speed almost made it look as if it had simply bounced off the turf and straight back into his chest.
The putdown was just as good, too, with Holmes slamming the ball to ground moments before being smashed into touch – a play that looked even classier in slow motion. While the Sharks may not have added the extras, an early penalty goal meant that they were now only a converted try behind the Chooks. Just as important, Holmes had finally arrived at the 2018 season, putting in what was arguably his first really outstanding display for the Sharks so far, or at least the first display on a par with what we know, from 2017, that he can achieve at his strongest.
Still, the Roosters responded in kind, with a pair of tries that were every bit as good as their opening two, even if they occurred a bit farther apart. The first was like a replay and remix of their first, with Cronk putting in a similar kick – just from a bit further, a bit higher – to the right corner. This time, Fergo managed to outjump both Feki and Leutele to catch it, but opted to pop it over the top to Matterson, who put down a double with a mere thirty seconds left on the clock until the half time siren.
It was a stunning way for the Chooks to end this first half, and a testament to the power of Cronk’s boot in organising and structuring this game, since they’d managed to put down three tries without managing a single line break. As amazing as that was, it also clarified James Tedesco’s more gradual process of acclimatizing to the team, so it was particularly rousing for Sydney City when Teddy himself crashed over about fifteen minutes into the second stanza, thanks to a deft pass from Keary and some sliding defence from Hodkinson that the ex-Tiger negotiated to his advantage.
Seeing that flash of brilliance from Teddy felt like another key moment in the Roosters’ consolidation of their new spine. For the last part of the game, however, they shifted from showcasing their attacking prowess to a masterpiece of defence that saw them hold out the Sharks for nearly ten straight minutes – from the sixtieth to the seventieth minute – in what felt like an endless period of field possession and position for Cronulla, culminating with an apparent try from Moylan at the very end.
The play came off the back of a chip from Townsend, which Kurt Capewell got a hand to before Moylan grounded it for the softest putdown of the night. Given that the onfield ruling was try, it was pretty odd when the Bunker reversed the four points on the basis of a knock-on, since while Capewell might not have definitively knocked the ball backwards, the angle was too oblique for the camera footage to show that he had definitively knocked it forwards either – a frustrating outcome for the Sharks.
Still, with Keary conceding a penalty in the process, Cronulla got another crack at the line. Whether they were spurred by desperation or a sense of injustice, they managed to crash over almost immediately, with Holmes scoring his own double by outrunning Robinson to ground a Townsend grubber right before the dead ball line. Recalling both Matterson’s double and Manu’s putdown, it was the kind of four-pointer that could easily have reversed the narrative of the game if it had come a bit earlier, or if Townsend had managed to add the extras to bring the score to 24-12.
As it was, however, the Chooks remained over two converted tries ahead, and as the final siren loomed that scoreline started to feel more and more impregnable, with the Sharks faithful starting to trickle out as the last minutes of the game ticked by. A kick from Keary to Robinson sealed the deal, in a pivotal game for Sydney City both in terms of attack and defence, but also an important moment for Cronulla in terms of Holmes’ increasing confidence and return to his 2017 form – a development they’ll be looking to take advantage of when they take on the Dragons next week.