Saturday night’s clash between the Roosters and Sharks was the only Round 19 fixture to feature two top eight teams, ending with a 34-8 win to the Tricolours, still heads and shoulders above Parramatta in third position on the ladder. Mitch Aubusson was named in the starting side for his 303rd game in Sydney City colours, making him the most capped player for the club, while the Chooks were resting James Tedesco and Jake Friend, meaning Joey Manu was at fullback and Joey Lussick at hooker.
Meanwhile Trent Robinson had opted to play it safe with Boyd Cordner’s head knock, while, on the the side of the Steeden, Wade Graham was still suspended, and Scott Sorensen was replacing Teig Wilton on the interchange bench. Aaron Woods had dislocated a finger against the Warriors but was deemed OK to represent the Sharkies against a Roosters outfit that had scored 100 points in their last two games at the SCG, in their first appearance at the SCG since 1987, when they won 22-4 over St. George.
The Chooks started fast, moving fluidly up the field to trap the Sharks on their own try line, where Sione Katoa fumbled a wide ball from Briton Nikora on only their second tackle. Manu continued to accelerate out of the scrum, trampling over Ronaldo Mulitalo and almost arriving at the corner before Connor Tracey finally disposed of him. The hosts headed right again on the fourth, and this time Mulitalo got his man, bumping Brett Morris over the sideline to bring this first batch of attack to an end.
Manu could have assisted Aubusson early in the tackle count if he had passed before hitting Tracey, so this was a big let-off for the Sharkies, who got the first restart early in their next set, but followed with their second cough-up in their own half – this time from Hamlin-Uele, who spilled it forward into a big combined tackle from Luke Keary and Isaac Liu.
The Sharkies prevented a Crichton offload, and contained a JWH run, but they weren’t going to stop Manu and Aubusson linking up now. Receiving the footy just inside the ten, the stand-in fullback made good on his lost assist, popping it across the face of Tracey to the milestone man, who deftly shifted direction to get on the inside shoulder of Josh Dugan, before wrestling his way though Will Kennedy to put the Steeden down.
This was the apotheosis of the Roosters’ superb opening push, as Kyle Flanagan’s conversion put them a point per minute before Cronulla had even completed a set – or got halfway through a set. They took a hit pretty quickly, though, as Daniel Tupou conceded the first error by losing the footy as a Blayke Brailey ankle tap brought him to ground, and Toby Rudolf and Woodsy piled on top. The Sharkies had their first real attacking opportunity, and played it safe, starting with a series of direct forward plays.
It paid off, as Shaun Johnson used the platform to elongate these runs into a tryscoring run for Siosifa Talakai, sending the Steeden across the face of Hamlin-Uele for the Sharkies’ biggest metre-eating forward to cross over untouched. Tupou’s error had proven just as damaging as the first two Cronulla mistakes, since with Johnson adding the extras the visitors had levelled the scoreline – and still without getting to the last tackle of a set.
They had a better restart than the Roosters, who got a shock when Manu lost the footy early in the next tackle count, but Tupou made up for his previous error by scooping it up to ensure that his men got to their next. Nevertheless, chinks were starting to show in the Sydney City armour, with Flanagan mistiming his next kick by swerving it away from Tupou to the middle of the park, where Katoa calmly contained it as the Chooks’ chase headed towards the wing.
Sure enough, the Sharkies got the first penalty of the night on their next set, when Freddy Lussick was offside within the ten, and got stuck into making up for their lost field position in the first five minutes. Johnson booted through his best grubber, and Dugan followed with a good chase to wrap up Manu just over the Roosters’ try line, setting up the first dropout of the night for Cronulla, who received a restart off a Liu ruck infringement almost immediately.
Flanagan got some joy with a huge hit on Talakai in the same part of the field where the big man had scored – and this seemed to neutralise the Sharks’ attack, as Rudolf faltered in the face of the defence on play three, and Kennedy’s grubber ricocheted off Sitili Tupouniua for a double knock-on a tackle later. Crichton steadied the ship with a big run early in the next set, clearing up space for Lussick and Liu to accelerate up the middle, tempting Briton Nikora into an offside penalty.
Flanno took the two, presumably to reset the game and give his men some breathing-space as much as anything else, and the strategy seemed to work, since the restart was much more assured this time around. Liu made great metres and got a restart to boot, as forward after forward drew in and exhausted the Cronulla defenders – especially JWH, who had two sterling runs, only for his second sequence to end with a putdown from Tupouniua on the back of a rushed Keary offload.
Even so, this set had been a real showcase for Sydney City fluidity, which they were able to resume as soon as Dugan lost the footy a few plays later, when Keary upstaged Johnson’s grubber with a dangerous ball that Kennedy only just smashed into touch before Josh Morris got there. Speed was the name of the game on the dropout, as the Chooks opted for a kinetic left sweep that nearly came undone with a Josh Morris pause that actually turned out to be perfectly timed to send Tupou across in the corner.
This wasn’t your classic Tupou try, though, since the Giraffe had to fight tooth and nail with Katoa, wrestling him in the air before somersaulting over him, and finally using him as a fulcrum to get the footy down. Crichton made a twenty-metre break a few minutes later, and while it didn’t come together for Tupou this time around, the Chooks regathered with an epic pack effort to drag Johnson over the sideline on the Sharkies’ next tackle.
JWH made an unforced error a moment later, receiving the footy from Liu and bobbling it in his left hand before losing it over the try line. Still, it didn’t take long for the Roosters to recover, as Liu barged through the Cronulla defence, dummied and popped the Steeden across to Keary, who received it fifteen metres out and outpaced Johnson to crash over untouched. This was a real consolidation point for Sydney – the clinical try they’d been heading for all night, putting them at twenty once Flanno converted.
They got a couple of further consolidation moments over the next passage of play – first when Sonny Bill Williams joined the fray eight minutes out from the break, then when Tupouniua made the hit of the night with a low tackle that sent Dugan heels over head, and finally when Aubusson forced Talakai to knock on into Nat Butcher, who had just joined the park. There was a brief comic interlude when SBW didn’t pack the scrum properly, before Manu risked a crazy rainbow ball out to Aubusson.
Aubo cleaned it up, Manu followed with a searching run, and SBW stepped up, sending out a bullet pass in the face of Katoa for Crichton to kick through a low tackle from Dugan. Mulitalo got the footy down, but in front of the try line, before Aubusson fell over it and appeared to fumble it with his right arm, copping a boot in the head from Jack Williams for his troubles. In a fairy-tale finish, however, the Bunker showed that Mitch had just got it down, notching up a double in his milestone match.
Between this trio of plays from SBW, Crichton and Aubusson – and Liu’s earlier assist – it had been a rich bounty for the Sydney City big men, easily good enough to cancel out JWH’s ealier error. Flanagan missed the conversion but the Chooks were still quadruple Cronulla (24-6), who desperately had to score again before the break to have any chance at a genuine comeback when they returned from the sheds.
They delivered on their very next set, when Katoa sliced through the line, danced over a legs tackle from Manu, and shifted it across to Kennedy at the twenty. The fullback came to ground at the ten, and Johnson continued the momentum with a crossfield kick on the second. Mulitalo caught it on the full, and Josh Morris wrapped him up, but Johnson’s boot had kept up the pace, and so Mulitalo scored again a tackle later, on the back of a deft left sweep that saw Talakai go from tryscorer to try assister.
After a series of clutch plays on both sides of the park, Mulitalo came up with an appropriately dramatic grounding here, appearing to breaststroke through the air as he lifted both legs about the level of his head to land Steeden-first, while Flanagan slid in to try and prevent the inevitable. Full credit to Talakai, too, who came up with a perfectly poised harbour bridge ball, while a scintillating sideline conversion from Johnson narrowed the margin to twelve as the siren rang out.
The tryscoring dried up over the third quarter, as possession started to stabilise, and both teams searched for the next big tipping-point. It came when Johnson received the footy from Brailey and slipped on the sodden turf five metres out. At first it seemed like a good sign that he was clutching his ankle instead of his knee, meaning it was unlikely to be an ACL issue, but after he was helped off park word came back from the sheds that it might be a dreaded Achilles snap, potentially ruling him out for finals.
Tupouniua took advantage of this long pause in play by reprising his hit from the first half, but against a considerably bigger man than Dugan this time around, as he burrowed low and skittled Talakai to ground. For a moment it looked like Cronulla had the last laugh, since they won a Captain’s Challenge to contend that Talakai had actually lost the ball backwards at the moment that Tupouniua made contact.
Yet the Roosters bounced back just as quickly, even if Tupou had his strangest first tackle play of the night, ferrying the footy back towards the Cronulla posts, despite a plethora of passing options. Once there, he was almost dragged into touch by Dugan, but the game took a dramatic turn when Duges collapsed beneath him, coming to ground so quickly that it seemed inevitable that play would be stopped as it was for Johnson.
Instead, Brett Morris stormed down the left sideline, drawing on his ballet playbook to pivot off his left boot and deliver a miracle one-hander to Keary, who crossed over while Dugan was still getting medical attention beneath the other crossbars. The sodden ground now defied the Roosters, as Flanagan slipped and missed the conversion, while Dugan got to his feet, strapped his left knee, and returned to battle for the Sharkies – a critical and courageous rallying-point with Johnson off the park.
Both teams were amped up on the restart, producing some massive clashes between the respective forwards, as Dugan recovered with a big tackle on Crichton before Katoa caught Keary’s bomb on the full, and followed with a daring offload for Sorensen to make twenty metres. Rudolf followed up the middle, and Brailey made a relatively rare kick, searching for the sideline but instead sending it into touch to gift the Chooks seven tackles.
They were just as strong on this set, as Liu got his first carry back off the bench, searching for an opportunity to exceed their season average of 28 points per game. Once again Aubo cleaned up a mistimed pass, this time from SBW, but the set disintegrated when Manu mirrored JWH by spilling the footy forward on the Cronulla try line, albeit under the high ball rather than off a regulation pass, as Dugan’s heroism continued with a potentially trysaving low tackle.
The Sharks had really been struggling without Johnson, and things got worse when Royce Hunt dislocated his kneecap under a low tackle, leaving on a medicab as Woods returned and Cronulla reshuffled. They’d wilted after Johnson’s departure, but this blow motivated them into their only try of the second half, on the very next play, when SBW missed a Hamlin-Uele tackle to concede four points to the big no. 8 – and six to the Sharkies after Katoa booted through his only conversion as replacement kicker.
Yet even this desperation couldn’t prevent the Roosters coming back as clinically as they had all night, and capitalizing on the very next Cronulla error – a hand in the ruck from Jesse Ramien – to put down their final try. They opted for a left sweep, and got six again when Katoa knocked the ball down, before Sonny Bill made up for his miss on Hamlin-Uele with one of his best runs of the night, clearing up space for Manu to cement his stint in the no. 1 jersey by slamming down the toughest try of the game.
Receiving the footy at the ten, Manu put in a big left fend on Rudolf and wrestled through Woods and Kennedy, reaching his right arm out of the maelstrom to land the tip of the Steeden on the try line. He contended with the tackle for so long that it looked like slow motion in real time – and with Flanagan booting through the extras we had the highest number of points in a three-match day since 2017, a good ending to a gutsy night in both attack and defence from the Roosters.
On the other side of the Steeden, this was a pretty dire result for the Sharkies, who had lost both Johnson and Hunt in the space of fifteen minutes. They’ll be looking to do some pretty serious regrouping before they meet the Raiders in Canberra next week, while the Roosters will be keen to make the most of Teddy’s return when they try to channel this same aggression against the Rabbitohs at ANZ on Friday night.