While the Panthers would host the Knights later in the day, the last match of the regular season with a bearing on the finals took place at Leichhardt Oval on Saturday afternoon – a sudden death match between the Tigers and Sharks to determine which team proceeded into the next week of football. The Tigers were desperate to take advantage of the home crowd and break the longest finals drought for any NRL team – since 2011 – while Cronulla were keen to make up for losing in golden point to Canberra last week as the Tigers were starting to get stuck into St. George.
This was also a big game for two veteran players – Paul Gallen, who was playing his 347th match, and is currently the oldest player in the NRL, and Robbie Farah, who had the chance for a second Leichhardt farewell after leaving for the Bunnies a couple of years before. After Michael Maguire had kept Robbie’s status close to his chest, the cult hooker was officially ruled out, only to be ruled back in ten minutes before kickoff after Corey Thompson strained his Achilles tendon during warmup.
Farah’s inclusion was announced so late that most fans at the venue weren’t aware of it – he hadn’t been part of the warmup himself – creating a rapturous response from the home crowd, who had been filing in for the last hour, when he trotted out to the field. He took the bench, though, with Josh Reynolds, as the game got going, and the Tigers got their first points off two Cronulla errors – a slow peel from Jayden Brailey, and an offside error from Matt Prior, who was caught out of position by some deft vision from Benji Marshall at dummy half.
Both teams almost got a try in the next couple of minutes, starting with Michael Chee Kam, who found himself directly beneath a crossfield kicks from Benji, and almost got hands to the footy, only for Bronson Xerri to knock it back first. At the other end of the field, a loose carry from Paul Momirovski was called a knock-on from Chad Townsend, pulling back the play just as the Cronulla attackers were converging on the loose football as it rolled around in front of the try line.
The Sharks came even closer a couple of sets later, when Ronaldo Mulitalo stepped into the spotlight for what will surely come to be seen as a pivotal moment in his evolution on the wing. After Cronulla’s first kick ricocheted off the defence, Mulitalo kicked it over the defence, then kicked it around Paul Momirovski, before Luke Garner chased it down, but knocked on right on the try line. Once again, the ball was loose, and Mulitalo actually got a hand to it, before David Nofoaluma surged in for the best trysaver so far, with Luke Brooks helping him to jog the ball loose.Embed from Getty Images
Mulitalo also played a part in the next big Cronulla push, which started with a combination of Cronulla offloads and fumbles that concluded with Brooks scooping up the tail end of a Townsend kick, taking a quick tap, and making his way twenty metres up the field. The Tiges were set for a silky surge up through the middle of the park, but they’d reckoned without a massive hit-up from Mulitalo on Brooks, which decelerated their momentum so much that they hadn’t moved more than a few metres further by the third tackle.
Townsend took advantage of this shift in momentum to attempt his second 40/20 attempt of the afternoon. This time his aim was true, and the Sharks made two shots on their left edge before Shaun Johnson pivoted on the right to clear up a tiny space for Briton Nikora to cross over for the first try of the game. The Sharks had scored on their first set in the Tigers’ twenty, but were still only two ahead after Johnson’s kick bounced off the left upright. Still, they’d managed to defy the home crowd and get into a groove, consolidating and concentrating further over the next few minutes.
It felt like it might be a turning point when Aaron Woods lost the footy at the end of a repeat set in the midst of an Elijah Taylor tackle, but Cronulla regathered pretty quickly, getting their first dropout after Momirovski was cleaned up in goal at the tail end of a Johnson bomb. The ex-Warrior was less effective at the end of the repeat set, however, kicking too far to gift the Tigers a seven tackle sweep as Josh Reynolds burst onto the field. Yet the home team could’t capitalise, despite being amped up even more by some heavy words between Benji and Graham in backplay.
A set later, Xerri reached out a hand to intercept a pass from Benji to Chris Lawrence, saving a try but getting the Tigers the scrum feed. With Williams not square at marker, Momirovski took the two, levelling the score at 4-4. At this very moment on the live ladder the Broncos were eliminated, with the Sharks and Tigers in seventh and eighth place respectively, but the game had to keep going, ratcheting up to the final note of the first half – a huge kick from Johnson that looked set to go dead only to bounce off the top of the post and careen back onto the field.
While Taylor showed some quick thinking to scoop it up, an error from Nofoaluma restored the Sharks’ two-point lead as Johnson booted through a second penalty goal on the stroke of half time. At this point, it was still a tight game, but the Sharks would break the match wide open with a rapid succession of tries – three in five minutes – after the break, leaving the Tigers so far behind that they were never able to catch up again, despite the return of Robbie Farah during the second stanza.Embed from Getty Images
The first try came off a deft kick from Johnson, off the right boot, that steered the Steeden past Brooks and beyond the try line, where Esan Marsters failed to clean it up, leaving it open for Josh Morris to reach out a hand and slam it down. This time Johnson added the extras, putting Cronulla eight ahead – a pretty good margin given how slow the scoring had been during the first forty. An offload from Williams set up the next try on the restart, allowing Townsend to start a left sweep that ended with a catch-and-pass from Xerri that sent Sosaia Feki across for another four points.
Three minutes later, Feki scored again, sending the Sharks into a twenty point lead that seemed totally unassailable, and almost incomprehensible after the tight and tense play of the first half. That said, the Tigers were the next to score, after Brooks put Luke Garner through the line midway up the field. Running a terrific line, the young second-rower caught the footy at speed, put in a big left foot step to get away from Dugan, ducked under a high tackle from Nikora, stepped over Nikora and then came to ground as Townsend slammed on top of him as the last line of defence.
This whole sequence had enough momentum to be a match-winner if Cronulla hadn’t enjoyed such a surge of points earlier in the second stanza, but with Momirovski’s conversion attempt bouncing off the uprights it was hard to feel this had made much of a dent in the Sharks’ supremacy. The final moment for the Tigers came when David Nofoaluma put the ball down under the posts about ten minutes out from the end, only for the try to be denied due to an obstruction from Thomas Mikaele.
Mikaele’s obstruction had had zero impact on the play, and while the Tigers couldn’t fault the referee’s decision, there was a sense of impotence at the end of this sequence. Neither team would score again, but there was no doubt that the Sharks had deserved their win margin, especially once Gallen popped through the first field goal of his career in the final seconds to bring the Sharks to a decimating 25-8 lead adding as much salt as possible to the Tigers’ wounds.
Cronulla will be pumped, then, when they rock up at Brookvale to take on a Sea Eagles outfit debilitated without Tom Trbojevic, since they showcased some of their best football in weeks over these final forty minutes. On the other side of the Steeden, this was one of the most heartbreaking games in recent memory for the Tigers, who have come ninth more than any other team in the NRL, and still stand as the team who have waited the longest for a chance at finals footy.