Both the Raiders and the Sharks had won in Round 10, but Canberra had come away with the more emphatic victory – a 32-18 win over the Titans, as opposed to Cronulla’s two point win over the Eels. Still, the Raiders were smarting from their massive loss from the Bunnies two weeks before and so were presumably determined for a solid win for only their second home fixture since being decimated by South Sydney when they rocked up against the Sharks on Saturday afternoon.
The first error of the match came from Jack Wighton, but he made up for it at the other end of the field, where he put in the trysaving tackle of the game to force Matt Moylan to cough up the footy just as he was crossing over on the right edge of the Sharks’ attack. A couple of tackles later, Siliva Havili ebbed the momentum with a pass that hit Iosioa Soliola square on the face, and yet the Raiders came up with a short chip from Sosaia Feki at the end of the subsequent set to hold on against a rapidly consolidating Cronulla outfit.
The next Sharks set was their strongest yet, as an offload from Andrew Fifita laid the platform for a series of impressive options, including some quick thinking from Ricky Leutele to scoop up a messy backwards pass from Joseph Paulo that actually bounced on the ground before the wiry centre came up with it. The Cronulla spine now delivered, as Valentine Holmes popped back a crossfield kick from Chad Townsend, for Ava Seumanufagai to scoop up the football and slam over the line.
The on field ruling was no try, yet the replay momentarily looked as if it might reverse that call, as the ex-Tiger managed to extricate his right arm from a maelstrom of Canberra jerseys and reach it around in a desperate effort to find the grass. Yet the replay was ultimately a testament to the enormous defensive effort of Jarrod Croker, who got himself beneath Seumanufagai while managing to contain his arm motion as well, before a couple of other Raiders slid in to hold the Cronulla forward up for good.
That enormous push translated into the Raiders’ attack as well, and so they were the next to score, thanks in part to one of the biggest brainsnaps of the 2018 season so far. Collecting the football from Aidan Sezer about twenty metres out from the line, Elliott Whitehead grubbered, daring Holmes to wait for the ball to go dead instead of taking it into touch and thereby grant the Raiders the first goal line dropout of the afternoon.
As it turned out, however, Holmes waited too long, descending into a weird dream state as Nick Cotric scooted around in front of him and ground the ball before his very eyes. Even if Holmes hadn’t been a factor, this would still have been a special play from Cotric, as he scooped the Steeden up into his chest, briefly bobbled it, and then only just regained possession as he tumbled onto his side ten centimetres out from the touch line, where he got it to ground before careening over the chalk.
This was the kind of brainsnap that can easily lose a game, so the away crowd must have breathed a sigh of relief when Holmes responded with a one-man try. It started with a dangerous spiraling kick bomb from Blake Austin that nevertheless seemed like the easiest take in the world for the Cronulla fullback, who caught it with ease and then got on the outside of Joey Leilua to run eighty-five metres to score, leaving even Jordan Rapana a good ten metres behind him as he crashed over beneath the posts untouched.
A slow peel from Joseph Tapine got Townsend a penalty kick shortly after, but the penalties quickly started to work in favour of the home team, as a slow peel from Fifita got the Raiders up the other end of the field, where Jayden Brailey leaked an offside penalty in turn. The green machine chose to tap and go, and a couple of tackles later Paulo notched up a penalty for a leg pull on Joey Leilua.
More frustrating than the leg pull was the timing of the penalty itself, since when the refs blew the whistle, Rapana had collected the footy from Leilua and seemed set to cross over. Yet that tantalising glimpse of the Lepana magic steeled Canberra to tap and go instead of levelling the scores by taking the two – a decision that made for the turning point of the game, given the way in which the next four points turned out.
Two tackles later, a pair of inside balls – the first from Havili, the second from Papalii – found Austin in the middle of the field. So good was the timing that when the elusive five-eighth ran between the posts Fifita and Paulo couldn’t quite contain him, running in from opposite directions but not meeting up seamlessly enough to prevent Austin reaching out a hand and getting the Steeden to ground.
It came at a significant cost, though, since Austin’s leg was inadvertently crushed beneath Fifita, forcing him off the field before Sezer had even lined up the conversion. In retrospect, then, you had to wonder whether the Raiders would have been better taking the two after all, as they were now deprived of their best player of the game, and wouldn’t score another try over the next forty-five minutes, despite getting a consolation penalty kick after Matt Prior was called offside shortly after.
A second penalty goal just before half time brought the Raiders to double the Sharks at 16-8, but these would be the last points of the game for Canberra, despite the home team returning after the break with a high octane attack – hard runs, big hits, rapid play-the-balls – that turned the second stanza into one of the best rugby league arm wrestles in weeks. More specifically, both teams aimed to out-accelerate each other up the left field, with the Raiders setting the scene with some terrific ball play up through Sezer, Wighton, Croker and Cotric.
In the left corner, Cotric fended off Holmes to get the ball to the ground, with the Cronulla fullback feeling almost as ineffective here as he had the first time Cotric put down four points. This time around, however, the try was denied due to a forward pass from Sezer, although it was a close call, since the slow motion footage showed the Steeden had been flicked backwards by the Canberra halfback, only to float considerably forward by the time that his winger got a hand to it.
The Sharks responded with some of their most plosive sets of the night, and a hard run from Fifita got them some great field position, as did a penalty a tackle later after Joseph Tapine was called offside. Choosing to tap and go, Feki stormed up the left edge, and managed to get the footy to ground under pressure from Rapana and Hingano – or, rather, almost managed to get the footy to ground, since the Bunker called that he’d lost control of the ball a millisecond before he’d landed it, confirming the onfield ruling of no try.
In reality, this was more ambigious, since while Feki might have lost the ball out of his left hand, his right hand never lost contact, and could have been argued to gently brush the Steeden to ground, with the result that this would probably have been called a try by the Bunker if the onfield call had been a try as well. In any case, the Sharks got a second chance when Sezer fumbled the footy following an offload from Tapine a couple of tackles later, and this time the visitors made good on their opportunity.
The key ingredient here was a superb grubber from James Segeyaro that sat up in just the right place for Holmes to beat Wighton and pop the ball back for Jack Williams to catch it on the chest and ground his first NRL try on debut. At the sixty minute mark, the Raiders responded with some rapid movement up the left edge, and received two successive penalties for their effort – a flop from Townsend as he tried to drag Sezer into touch, and then a leg pull from Moylan to prevent Tapine charging over the line.
In both cases, Canberra chose to take the two, but with Hingano grubbering on the last without even checking to see whether he had space out on the right edge (and he did), Moylan cleaned up the Steeden and Luke Bateman leaked an offside penalty to get the Sharks some breathing-space. It was now Cronulla’s turn to showcase some amazing edge work, only for Canberra to respond with some of their strongest cover defence of the night, with Cotric, Croker and Wighton joining forces to slam Edrick Lee into touch as he was on the verge of making good on this rightward momentum.
Although it had been a neck-and-neck contest, the Sharks were starting to feel dominant, so when Sezer kicked out on the full with fifteen minutes to go it was no surprise Cronulla consolidated even further. Four tackles later, Townsend sent the ball through Moylan and Paulo to put Feki across in the corner, with Moylan contribting a brilliant dummy, and Paulo coming right up to the line to catch Rapana infield – a culmination of all the clutch timing and merciless acceleration that had made this second act so exhilarating to watch.
As triumphant as this try felt, however, the Sharks were still only two points ahead, and with Townsend missing the conversion they remained that way until the last two minutes of the game, when Holmes got some closure on a bit of a spotty night – some very high highs and a few pretty low lows – with the fifty-first try of his NRL career. It happened in the most dispiriting way for the Raiders, too, as one of the hardest runs of the night from Tapine was followed by Sezer passing the ball to Segeyaro, who sent it across to his fullback for his second long-distance try of the night.
Nevertheless, the Sharks will be hoping for a more emphatic win – and less of a last minute effort – when they take on the the Bulldogs at home next week, while this was a pretty dour ending for the Raiders, who will need to reach deep into their arsenal in order to rally some extra special team spirit as they face the prospect of a Dragons home game in Mudgee without Austin around to lead the troops.