The Sharks were looking to bounce back big after their 38-10 loss to Newcastle when they took the field at Jubilee on Sunday evening, especially since they’d won six of their last seven games against New Zealand. Shaun Johnson was back from the groin injury that had kept him sidelined for three matches, and was also captaining Cronulla for the first time, pairing with Connor Tracey in the halves with Chad Townsend suspended over the next three weeks for his shoulder charge on Kalyn Ponga
On the other side of the Steeden, the Warriors still had a slim finals chance if they won here – pretty incredible given their season – but had lost nine from ten against top eight outfits in 2020. Most of their changes took place in the front and second row, with Tohu Harris listed at prop and Isaiah Papli’i in the back row, and Lachlan Burr back on the interchange bench after starting in last week’s match against Parramatta.
Cronulla got a restart on their first set, and Aaron Woods made thirteen metres up the left edge, before they shifted right on the third, where Jesse Ramien asked some big questions of New Zealand’s left side defence. Johnson’s first pass on the last defied Will Kennedy, but the Cronulla fullback got it on his second go, and popped it off the ground to Sione Katoa, who managed a bomb from the right edge that posed no trouble for Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.
Kodi Nikorima was forced to kick from his own end, but the bounce was terrific, sailing straight through Ronaldo Mulitalo’s hands, but tempting an offside downtown from Jamayne Taunoa-Brown. The Sharks didn’t complete, however, as Josh Dugan put down a Tracey pass on the left side of the park, giving the Warriors the first scrum feed of the night. Jack Murchie broke through the line two tackles later, making his way to the twenty, where a Chanel Harris-Tevita grubber trapped Kennedy behind the chalk.
This was the first really aggressive play from either team, as Murchie took the first hit-up on the restart, and Jazz Tevaga got a good offload out on the second to Karl Lawton, who shifted it back to Murchie. Enjoying his time in the spotlight, the big backrower got six again off a ruck error from Blake Brailey, and the Warriors got a second restart three tackles later. Yet the Sharks’ weakened 2020 defence had a big letoff when Murchie ended it all by coughing up the footy in the face of a big trysaver from Tracey.
This was a big shift in momentum, and while Braden Hamlin-Uele’s offload on the next set seemed to cost his men twenty metres, Kennedy scooped it up and compensated by sending Katoa up the sideline, where he grubbered at speed a full second before RTS slammed in for a clear late hit. Nevertheless, no whistle was blown, so the Sharkies now had to withstand the first seven tackle set of the game after Katoa’s kick went too deep, instead of the repeat set, or shot at goal, that they really deserved.
Nikorma steadied the ship with a soaring bomb on the next set, and this time Mulitalo was safe, holding his own against a big chase headed by Murchie. Cronulla got their penalty after all when Peta Hiku was pinged for holding down, and Johnson saved his forwards some grunt by sending it a long way down field. Siosifa Talakai responded with one of the best runs of the night so far, wrestling his way through four defenders and laying down space for Briton Nikora to almost break through up the middle.
Murchie now got revenge on Tracey with a trysaver of his own, holding up the wiry five-eighth right on the line, before Aaron Woods slipped and fumbled a Blayke Brailey grubber right on the chalk. Woodsy should have scored here, so this could easily have been a deceleration moment for the Sharks, but instead Johnson took the ball heroically, remaining just inside the field of play as four forwards converged on him, before an offside for Tevaga got Cronulla another boost on their very first tackle.
This time they came good, as Johnson threaded the footy through the defence from the thirty, timing it perfectly for Katoa to collect it on the bounce without RTS ever having a chance of getting to him. The Sharks and Wests Tigers were now about equal with the tryscoring tally in 2020, since Kata now had the equal most tries of the season (two below David Nofoaluma), while Johnson had the most try assists (two above Benji Marshall), even if his discomfort with converting from the right side got to him here.
New Zealand’s short kickoff didn’t faze the Sharks, who muscled their way up the middle on the restart, ending with a relaxed Johnson bomb that George Jennings falconed back into Katoa’s head. The Sharkies headed left out of the scrum, where Tracey made a run at the chalk, Talakai tired out the big men, and Hamlin-Uele became the next forward to puncture a burst of Cronulla position – this time by dropping a Brailey pass in the same part of the park where Woods had fumbled Brailey’s grubber.
The Warriors now got their first penalty of the match, and mirrored the Sharkies by getting it on play one, when Woods was called offside, so it looked like we might be in for a change of pace, as New Zealand showed they could also make big metres up the middle. Murchie wrestled the high ball away from Mulitalo, but found himself careening into Tracey when he tried to make it to the line, continuing the personal rivalry that had briefly emerged between these two players.
Hayze Perham showcased some dazzling footwork two tackles into the next New Zealand set, and while Johnson was more than a match for him, the sheer speed of the young centre ushered in the fastest changeover period so far. First Tevaga offloaded out the back to Woods, and then Dugan put down a low ball from Tracey in the face of an Adam Pompey tackle, before Taunoa-Brown bobbled the play-the-ball on the first tackle out of the scrum, and Woodsy lost it a moment later.
You wouldn’t normally trust a prop to send up a Captain’s Challenge, but Woodsy’s judgement turned out to be correct here, since the replay clearly showed that Murchie had knocked back his offload as Karl Lawton was piling on for the tackle. From there, the footy ricocheted back off the left leg of Kennedy, who collected it cleanly, meaning that Cronulla had another shot at the line. Yet another turnover, this time from Rudolf, got the Warriors back on track, and helped lay the platform for their first dropout.
Isaiah Papali’i ended with an offload for Chanel, who would have crossed over if not for a monster tackle from Johnson to bring his fellow halfback down. Chanel tried to fight back with a huge hit on Johnson a few minutes later, but he popped the ball too high for Perham to collect, leading to a Cronulla scrum thirty-five out. Tracey did well to secure a cut-out ball from Brailey on the fourth, and this clutch play motivated Mulitalo into putting down Johnson’s second try assist on the wing a tackle later.
This was all class from Johnson, as well as from Dugan, who effectively offered a second try assist as he slid onto his knees, waiting until the last minute to decide whether or not to make contact with the rollicking Steeden, and so missing it when he finally opted to take a swing, leaving it open for Muliatlo to put down his eighth try of the season. This time Johnson added the conversion, and made up for his first attempt by booting through a penalty when Wayde Egan was called offside within the ten a minute later.
New Zealand were now staring down ten unanswered points, and had another challenge to contend with when Andrew Fifita returned to the park five minutes out from the break, after being ruled out of the squad for last week’s match against the Knights. With his best first half behind him, the man to get them back on the board was Muchie – and he made good three minute outs, collecting a RTS offload at the fifteen and breaking past a low shot from Brailey to cross over beside the right post.
The third quarter was a bit of a slog for the Sharkies, who didn’t score again until the last ten minutes, and conceded three successive penalties for New Zealand’s next try. That said, they started strong, as Jennings found himself at the end of a rapid left sweep, only to be dragged over the sideline as Katoa came in low, Johnson assisted on top, and a swathe of other Sharkies defenders piled on for the toughest pack effort of the evening, before another Cronulla big man got a successful Captain’s Challenge.
This time the recipient was Jack Williams, who got out of a knock-on, as Fifita consolidated with a spectacular strip on Tevaga, and the Sharkies seemed destined to keep coasting on a 6-1 penalty count. The tipping-point came when Dugan made a second effort at the tail end of a Tracey grubber, costing Johnson a penalty for verbal dissent when he agitated for it to be sent upstairs, despite Matt Cecchin reiterating that there could be no pause in play for this particular decision.
Papali’i now followed his near assist for Chanel with a huge run, and while he lost the footy, he gained more field position when Williams was penalised for a pretty soft flop. Chanel slammed in from close range on tackle one, and Adam Blair slipped on play two, only to recover his rhythm immediately with an offload to Egan, who drew in four defenders beside the posts. Yet the Warriors saved the best of their legendary second phase play for the final right sweep, which saw Hiku send Pompey across for four more.
Even with Johnson’s terrific night, this was the best try assist of the game – and the best offload of the game. Receiving a wide ball from Nikorima, Hiku put in a big right fend on Dugan, only just retaining his balance as he flicked a no-look pass across the face of Mulitalo into Pompey’s chest. This was also the best clutch play and the best deception play of the night, so it was a bit surprising – and a testament to the Cronulla defence – that it didn’t produce an avalanche of New Zealand points then and there.
In fact, this was the last New Zealand try of the night, although the visitors did briefly glimpse the lead ten minutes later, when Chanel responded to a high hit from Nikora by booting through a spectacular penalty kick from just outside the forty. Yet the Warriors couldn’t build on these fourteen unanswered points, losing their mojo when they wasted their Captain’s Challenge to dispute that Perham had given Katoa a shove in the back to force a knock-on right on the dead ball line.
Even so, the Sharkies had to wait until the last six and a half minutes to score their last two tries – and came up with a botched try before they finally made good, as Johnson glimpsed his third assist with a grubber up the right edge. Katoa fumbled it, Ramien regathered possession and slammed it down, but the replay reiterated what had already been clear in real time – that Katoa had knocked the footy into RTS, who had to work hard to get there, and was pretty ginger on his calves when play resumed.
New Zealand needed a few big plays to take the heat off their fullback, and while Nikorima did well with a huge bomb on the next kick, Tevaga was pinged for a shoulder charge, and Hiku had to sub off after trying to clean up the best run of the night from Talakai. After a second half of continuous stops and starts, everything accelerated from here, as Johnson popped the footy out to Hamlin-Uele and received the offload in turn, pivoting off the right boot to make a spectacular twenty metres up the right edge.
Tracey shaped to send it left on the next tackle, before Rudolf straightened the play with a monstrous run up the middle, proving why he’d remained a Shark instead of a Warrior, as he bumped off every defender in his path, to put down the toughest four points of the night. His team mates crowded in to congratulate him like it was the final four-pointer of the night, but the Sharkies had another try in them, and got amongst it after Johnson popped through a pretty straightforward kick from right in front.
Jennings caught Johnson’s next kick on the restart, and the Warriors got to the end of their next set, with Tevaga and Chanel even coming up with a pair of risky offloads, but Katoa brought the the high ball all the way back over the halfway line – and with that kind of momentum the Sharkies were always going to score on their last set. Two tackles later, a Tracey pass and Talakai offload sent Mulitalo over for a double in the corner, where he defied Murchie at the last to cement Cronulla’s push for the finals.
Even if Johnson didn’t get the conversion, this was still a stunning comeback from the Sharks – an critical late surge to motivate them when they meet the Roosters at the SCG next Saturday night. On the other side of the Steeden, and despite the loss, this was also a pretty extraordinary effort from New Zealand – part of an extraordinary season – so they should have their heads held high when they rock up to play Canberra at GIO.