ROUND 5: Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks v. Sydney Roosters (PointsBet Stadium, 13/4/19)

The Roosters decimated the Broncos 36-4 at the SCG in Round 4, but they took a while to get going against the Sharks on Saturday night, despite putting down five tries and five conversions by the time they’d won the game. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves was still out with a rib complaint, but Cooper Cronk had been cleared to play after his hit from Tevita Pangai Junior the week before, while Shaun Johnson was also back on the park after a quadriceps strain had kept him out of the Sharks’ game at Parra, where the Eels had doubled them with a 24-12 scoreline in Round 4.

The first big event in the game was a forward pass from Victor Radley to Luke Keary, but it didn’t lead anywhere for the Sharks after Matt Prior lost the footy three tackles into the next set while trying to offload to Jayden Brailey. A set later, Sione Katoa made the most of a bad last tackle pass from Johnson to Josh Dugan, starting a big left sweep that ended with Chad Townsend kicking to the left corner, where Kurt Capewell popped the ball back, allowing Townsend to rush in for a second, briefer kick.

This could have been a momentum-building sequence for the Sharks, but the Roosters were able to clean the ball up, although Cronk put it down just as quickly, early in the next set. This time Johnson found Dugan fluidly on the first tackle and, a couple of plays later, shifted the direction of the attack unexpectedly, catching James Tedesco by surprise as Townsend kicked to the left corner once again. The kick was more reumerative here, as Matt Ikuvalu was trapped in goal for the first dropout, but it came to nothing when Bronson Xerri coughed up a pass from Dugan.

The pass would probably have sent Xerri over the line – it was two on one – and epitomised a game where both teams were really struggling to settle into a stable rhythm. The Chooks got their own dropout shortly after, and the Sharks went for a short kick, but Joseph Manu secured the Steeden, almost knocking on but then regathering it the second time around. Yet a spectacular one-on-one tackle from Townsend cleaned up Tedesco on the right edge, just as he was pivoting off his right foot, allowing the Sharks to regather the football and get rolling once again.

Teddy might have got away with a forward pass on the next set, but he was forced right back to his goal line by a superb kick from Townsend a set later – part of a concerted contest between the Cronulla halfback and Sydney fullback that would continue throughout the game. Eighteen minutes from the siren, Tedesco tried to offload to Boyd Cordner, but whether through mistiming or miscommunication the Sydney City captain coughed it up, as the visitors’ most reliable combinations seemed to be failing them.

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The Sharks seemed galvanised by seeing Tedesco struggle, and very nearly scored on the next set, thanks to some superb second phase play from Jayson Bukuya that set up Townsend for a damaging bomb to the left corner. Matt Ikuvalu and Sosaia Feki competed for the footy in the air, and knocked on in that order, but the Chooks got the scrum feed, despite some audible debate between the referees about how to award possession.

It turned out to be a big decision, since the Roosters now responded with a classic linkup – just what they needed to regain their composure and assert some control of the game. Finding himself wrapped up in the middle of the field early in the tackle count, Cordner offloaded back to Radley, who wasn’t in a good position to regather it, and so let it bounce for Tedesco. The ex-Tiger now made up for his earlier messiness, showcasing his trademark footwork to shift the footy across to Keary, who broke through the line in turn.

For a moment it looked like he might have left it a bit late to pass to Cronk on his inside, especially since Mitchell was screaming for the footy on the wing, but he ended up timing it perfectly, sending his halfback across for the first four points of the night, before Latrell added an easy goal to make it a converted try lead. Equally as important as the points, however, was the demonstration that the Sydney spine could synergise when needed, since this was the first sequence where the key playmakers had really been collaborating fluidly.

Five minutes out from half time, Cronk compounded the Sydney push with a superb 40/20, and the Chooks spent their first three tackles on the right side of the field, before moving to the left, where space opened up after Xerri was forced to commit to Cordner. All Tedesco had to do was pop the footy over to Mitchell, but he somehow bungled the pass, returning the Roosters to the slump of the opening act just when Cronk appeared to have accentuated their momentum. This should have been a game-changer for the Sharks, especially when Briton Nikora broke through the line off a catch-and-pass from Johnson, only for Xerri to put the footy down.

Yet with Lindsay Collins losing the ball almost immediately, the Sharks got time for at least one more set before the siren. While Mitchell may have intercepted a Johnson pass before Cronulla could get to their last tackle, Collins made a second handling error, gifting the Sharks the final twenty seconds of the first stanza. Johnson’s decision to kick made sense, but not the kick itself, which didn’t have any real playmaking potential, and proved disastrous when Tedesco regathered it and then, with four seconds on the clock, fed it to Radley, who got it across to Keary in turn.

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Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and Keary was the man now, booting the footy over to the left edge, where Mitchell caught it on the full, dancing over Katoa and outrunning Dugan to score in the left corner, before converting his own try from the sideline. The contrast between Johnson and Keary’s kicks couldn’t have been starker, while the Roosters couldn’t have staged a better way to take control of the game, putting even more pressure on Cronulla to deliver for the home crowd when they returned from the sheds.

They got a big chance on their very first set, when Briton Nikora broke through the left and shifted the footy across Tedesco’s chest for Xerri, who would have had nothing but open space to contend with if he hadn’t coughed up the footy at the critical moment. Cronulla had lost a massive opportunity to correct after Johnson’s mistake, and the Roosters capitalised immediately on the next set, as Mitchell went from tryscorer to assister, twisting and spinning through three Cronulla players before offloading to Teddy right on the line, and then adding the extras from right in front to bring the Tricolors to 0-18.

Sydney City had now compounded two successive Sharks errors, making this the costliest three minutes of football all year for Cronulla. They got a fresh burst of field position on the next set after a Capewell penalty, and Cordner scored a minute later on their left edge, where he muscled his way out of a desperate tackle from Johnson before busting through the Sharks’ second and third layers of defence to skyrocket his team to a 0-24 lead once Mitchell booted through another conversion. No surprise that the Sharkies doubled down on defence on the next set, but Cronk still managed a good kick at the end of it all, while Johnson mistimed a pass that ricocheted off Nikora’s head the next time the hosts got the football.

Unbelievably, the Roosters capitalised just as quickly on Johnson’s second error, thanks to a superb pass from Tedesco, and an even more accomplished offload from Manu, who flicked the footy backwards out of his right hand for what was effectively a no-look pass to Matt Ikuvalu out on the edge. If the pass was spectacular, the putdown was miraculous, as Ikuvalu contorted himself in the air as if the ground were a metre higher, seeming to pivot himself off an imaginary surface as he eluded Townsend to put the Steeden down in the corner, before his entire body was slammed into touch a second later.

This was the perfect ending to the most prodigious burst of tryscoring all year from the Roosters, and their most emphatic indication yet that they can go back to back in 2019, bringing them to a thirty point lead once Mitchell booted through yet another conversion. They wouldn’t score another point, and yet they didn’t really need to in order to cement this game as a masterpiece, making Cronulla’s next three tries feel like consolations, especially since they all came in the final quarter. That’s not to say the hosts didn’t get any chances over the next few minutes, though, since Manu was quickly pinged for a marginal crusher tackle a set later, only for Mitchell to clean up Townsend’s final kick without too much difficulty.

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A fumble from Keary, due to a challenging pass from Radley, got the Sharkies down the Sydney end of the field sooner than they were expecting, where Dugan ran at the line on the third tackle, only to lose the football into a wall of Roosters jerseys. He made up for it a set later by securing one of Cronk’s most soaring bombs of the night, but it was becoming abundantly clear that the Sharks simply weren’t capable of capitalizing upon the Roosters’ errors as efficiently and rapidly as the Tricolors had built upon their own string of mistakes just before and after the break.

They glimpsed points a moment later, when Capewell broke through the defence right on the line, off a dummy and run from Townsend, but Tedesco slammed in for the trysaver of the night, wrapping himself around the second-rower’s right ankle to bringing him to ground a metre out from the chalk. Dugan then trapped Mitchell in goal for a much-needed dropout, and Andrew Fifita took the first tackle with his most bullocking run of the match, but the set ended prematurely when Teddy came up with the ball, marking the end of a brief burst of possession that the Sydney City fullback had managed as efficiently as if it had been his team with the football.

Dugan responded with an enormous trysaver on Daniel Tupou at the ten metre line, leaving the big winger reeling, before a Townsend knock-on got the Roosters a fresh set of six right on the Cronulla line. After asking some questions on the left edge, they almost scored in the centre, when Keary came close to sending Taukeiaho beneath the posts, and then almost scored on the right edge, where Angus Crichton initially seemed to have got a Luke Keary grubber to ground. Yet the replay showed that the ex-Rabbitoh had never quite exerted sufficient downward pressure on the football, landing on it, and then regathering it into his chest, without ever getting it emphatically enough to earth for a try.

If Crichton had scored here it’s possible that the Sharks wouldn’t have scored at all, so decimating would this string of points have been. As it was, though, this missed try seemed to give Cronulla a bit more momentum in the final twenty minutes of the match, which started with a dangerous tackle from Aubusson, and some holding down from Keary, that set up Josh Morris to slam down the first four points for the Sharkies. Full credit has to go to Townsend for the initial pass that set up the left sweep, and to Capewell for the cut-out pass that got Morris into space, along with a defensive misread from Cronk that meant Morris was able to cross over securely without having to shift the Steeden out to Feki on the wing.

Townsend shanked the conversion away to the right of the posts, but he’d get a chance to add the extras a minute later, when Morris, like Mitchell, went from tryscorer to assister, breaking through the line on the fourth tackle before offloading to Johnson for the next four points of the game. The preceding sequence played like a looser and more elastic version of the Townsend-Capewell combo that had produced Morris’ own try, and for a fleeting moment this felt like it might be a momentum-shifter for a whole host of reasons – the Sharks had now replicated the speed of the Roosters’ previous string of tries, Morris had stepped up as one of their veterans, and Johnson had gained some closure after his errors before and after the break.

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Yet the next six points for Cronulla wouldn’t come until the last minute of match, when Jack Williams scooped up a late offload from Matt Prior to bring them to a final scoreline of 16-30 once Townsend sent the extras through the uprights. In the interim sixteen minutes, the Roosters amped up their defence again, reiterating this as one of their most masterful games of the season so far – a good rallying point as they steel themselves to face the Storm at AAMI Park on Friday night. On the other side of the Steeden, this was a disappointing sequel to the Sharks’ loss to Parra last week, especially given their final surge, so they’ll be looking to score early and often when they host Penrith at Cronulla for the first match of Round 6.

About Billy Stevenson (508 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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