ROUND 13: Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks v. Parramatta Eels (Netstrata Jubilee Stadium, 9/8/20)
The Sharks had Matt Moylan back on board when they hosted the Eels at Kogarah for the last and wettest match in a very wet weekend of NRL, while Parra were keen to prove their credentials as premiership contenders after slipping to third on the ladder following Penrith’s perfect fortnight of football. Maika Sivo made a good run for his first carry, and kicked at speed on the left sideline, but denied himself the subsequent chase with a high tackle on Will Kennedy, who was the last line of Cronulla defence. Wade Graham came up with a beautiful kick on the next set, booting the ball so hard that it seemed destined to go dead, relying on the slow, wet surface for it to come to a complete halt a foot out from the back line. Cronulla took the bold deceision to make their first Captain’s Challenge four minutes in to contest whether Braden Hamlin-Uele had lost the footy on the first tackle – and the risk paid off, as the replay showed the big prop fumbling the ball onto his right leg, only to curve it back up around to his chest as three defenders converged on the tackle. Yet that just made it all the more frustrating when Moylan became the first real casualty of the slippery Steeden, coughing it up on the very next play, in his first touch of the game. With an offside penalty from Siosifa Talakai, the Eels were in good position pretty quickly, and Dylan Brown capitalised with an early kick, booting it from the twenty so that it decelerated right at the try line, where Sivo and Ronaldo Mulitalo competed for it.
Sivo actually claimed a try only for the Bunker to show he’d clearly knocked on, before Josh Dugan found some space for Sione Katoa on the left edge, and Graham put through another perfectly weighted kick to force another dropout, as Clint Gutherson slid to his knees to collect the football in goal, although the dropout turned into a ten metre restart when Waqa Blake was pinged for an escort in backplay. Mitchell Moses had tried to intercept Graham’s last kick, and did better this time around, reaching out his right boot to trap the footy, and then storming his way down the sideline, where he looked set to score a long-range try until Shaun Johnson accelerated a good four or five meters to drag his opposing halfback into touch. Graham sent a good cut-out pass to Katoa at the end of the next set, but instead of making his way up the sideline Sione now hoisted it back in field, where the Eels let it bounce, and the Sharks went for a second Captain’s Challenge in an attempt to reverse an offside penalty for Moylan. This time they were unsuccessful, since Moylan was deemed to have put a foot in front of the ball, as the mowing stripes proved useful in distinguishing his position in the sodden conditions. Nevertheless, Mulitalo was safe under Moses’ next bomb, and so the Sharks got rolling back down the field again, opting for a rapid left sweep on the fourth, before Shaun Johnson shaped for a long kick, but instead sent it over the sideline for a midfield scrum feed.Embed from Getty Images
The rain now really started teeming down, and Moses took advantage of it with a beautiful chip that forced the first Parra dropout after Mulitalo came in from the right wing to clean up the Steeden as it spiraled away behind the posts. Dylan Brown now forced a second successive dropout, as Kennedy got a finger to the footy just as it tumbled over the dead ball line, but then ended the dropout, with an early pass to Junior Paulo that was called forward but looked fine in both real time and slow motion. The Eels regrouped immediately, however, when Mulitalo took his eyes off a Blayke Brailey pass on play one, giving them the scrum feed right about where Brown had made his mistake. They got a restart two tackles in, as the rain teemed down even heavier, and as an actual forward pass to Paulo – this time from Reed Mahoney – was overlooked by the refs right on the line. Mahoney took the next tackle himself, making a hard run at the chalk, clearing up space for Brown to dummy and put down one of the best deception tries of 2020 on the following play, when he almost crashed over untouched once the Cronulla defenders had moved away from marker, taking Johnson and Talakai especially by surprise. Moses booted through the conversion to make it a six point lead, but Kennedy was safe under the next high ball, catching it on his back as the Sharkies tried to get out of their own end against a renewed Parra defence.
The Eels got another dropout next time they had possession, when Moses dropped a deft grubber off the side of his boot, forcing Johnson to make his speediest run so far to get a hand to it before Dylan Brown. Shaun Lane looked in vain for an offload on the second play, but Moses took advantage of the slow surface to force another dropout on the third, this time with a rapid kick to the right corner, where Dugan was forced onto his knees to bump the Steeden into touch. Moses didn’t do as well on the next set, however, bobbling and regathering the footy, but not getting enough time to shape the kick properly, and so booting it into the defence, where Moylan scooped it up and got it across to Talakai, who shifted it over to Rudolf in turn to give Cronulla an entire set within the Eels’ end of the park. They swept right on the third, and then again on the last tackle, when Johnson executed the best kick so far – both the fastest kick, looking like it would go dead, and the most sudden stop, halting half a metre out from the dead ball line, where Jesse Ramien got around the back of Michael Jennings and claimed the try, with the Bunker ratifying his claim, while also reiterating just how close this contest had been. You could almost make a case for simultaneous putdown, although the four points would still have gone to Cronulla – four, nor six, since Johnson faded the footy out to the right, in the first of several frustrated conversion attempts for the ex-Warrior over the course of the evening.Embed from Getty Images
The Sharkies probably wouldn’t have survived another dropout on their own line, so this was a big turning-point, even without the conversion, as Johnson really stepped up from hereon in an epic battle of the halfbacks. Two near-tries now ensued – the first seven mintues out, when Johnson kicked for Mulitalo to put down the ball in what was initially called a try, but then reneged by the Bunker after the Cronulla winger was deemed to be offside. The next came when Marata Niukore and Matt Moylan converged on the footy right on the Cronulla dead ball line, only for the replay to come back showing that the big second-rower had never got a hand to it, and that only Moylan’s boot had made contact, leading to yet another Sharks dropout. Moses was now at the top of the ladder for forced dropouts this season at sixteen, while Johnson was second at fourteen, but the Eels didn’t get the chance to do much with this one, as Graham intercepted a pass from Brown to Gutherson to get the Sharkies sliding back down the field. Blake Ferguson did just as well at the end of a Johnson kick that didn’t quite reach the try line, scooping it up to run forty metres before Gutho added another twenty. The Eels then got a restart a tackle later, getting a fresh set right where Graham had intercepted, as the rain suddenly reached a new level of intensity, perhaps explaining why Oregon Kaufusi and Johnson put down the footy in quick succession.
Parra got a restart to build on Johnson’s error, and tried out their attack from every angle, but couldn’t come up with the try, as Ferguson leaped up to collect a Moses kick in goal, but watched Katoa get there first to concede one more dropout with seven seconds on the clock. The Eels had one play here, and Moses passed back inside to Gutho instead of opting for a field goal, as the King tried to kick for Sivo but instead sent it over the sideline. This had become a masterpiece of defence for the home team, so it was a big blow when Parra scored immediately off a Sharks error after the break. All it took was Ramien losing the ball off a bad pass from Moylan, as Brown dummied to the outside and offloaded through a low tackle from Talakai to Kane Evans, who slammed to ground for another four, with Moses making it a twelve point lead from right in front. Kaufusi lost the footy on the restart off some big contact from Royce Hunt, in what had the potential to be a mirror image of the last Parra play, but instead turned out to be a carbon copy when Ramien put down the ball for a second successive error. He didn’t have the excuse of a bad pass this time either, since Johnson sent it straight and fast, although Fergo soon became the next casualty of the oily footy, letting it go beneath a big bomb from Johnson. In a miracle of ball handling, Mulitalo scored on the next set, leaping up to catch a cut-out pass from his halfback, and popping it into the air, only to regather it, score, and slide on his back over the sideline for a superb wet weather celebration.Embed from Getty Images
Once again, however, Johnson missed the conversion, sending the Steeden into the right upright to keep Cronulla four points behind, although he made up for it with a sublime 40/20 on the restart – a real achievement under such torrential conditions, especially since the augmented field position led to a double from Mulitalo, who received the ball from Kennedy, headed for the corner, and then swerved back inside at the last minute to slice through Brown and Jennings to land on his back and reach out a right hand away from the Parramatta five-eighth to plant the football down. This was arguably Johnson’s most important kick of the match, but it led to his worst, as he now shanked it away to the right of the posts, as if kicking to the Leagues Club, to keep the game locked up at 12-12. Parra soon got their best dropout yet, when Moses chipped and then chased to pop the footy out of Graham’s grasp, forcing Katoa to clean it up in goal as Brown landed on him, and both men vanished beneath a sea of spray. Yet Fergo now made the worst pass of his career on the first tackle, lobbing the ball back inside like he was using it as part of an interpretative dance, as Dugan slid in front of Paulo to clean it up. Johnson forced a dropout soon after, sending the football sliding sluggishly along the turf so that the chase had time to trap Gutho in goal, and then seemed to glimpse a possibility on the left edge on the fourth tackle of the restart, but couldn’t quite find the kicking, passing or running option he needed to consolidate.
Two tackles into the next Parra set Mulitalo was taken off for an HIA, while the Sharks were frustrated by Fergo getting his fingers to the footy in the air without leaking a knock-on. Insult was added to injury as Aaron Woods was pinged for crowding, but Lane lost the footy, only for the Eels to enjoy a retro moment by recovering the ball from the subsequent Sharks scrum – the defining play of the final quarter, as it turned out, since the sudden shift in possession tempted Hamlin-Uele into an early tackle on Reagan Campbell-Gillard in front of the posts, as Moses slotted through the kick to put his men two points ahead as the final ten minutes approached. Cronulla hadn’t led at any point during the game, despite scoring three tries to two, and couldn’t put down the critical four-pointer as the siren approached, despite getting a great opportunity three minutes out, when Ramien did well to stay in the field of play, only for Moylan to botch one of his few last-tackle kicks of the night, sending it a little too far and fast for Katoa to put down in the corner. By the time the siren sounded, the Eels had come away with their toughest and grittiest win of the year, so they’ll be looking for a bigger margin, and hoping for better conditions, when they host the Dragons next week, while the Sharks will be keen to channel the frustration of this almost-win into a big one when they host a resurgent Gold Coast outfit at Kogarah on Saturday afternoon.
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