ROUND 20: Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks v. Canberra Raiders (Netstrata Jubilee Stadium, 26/9/20)

The Raiders won by ten when they faced the Sharks for their last clash of the regular NRL season, with both teams scoring high despite being without their regular spines on the cusp of finals footy. Nick Cotric did well to handle an awkward kickoff, and Iosia Soliola took his first tackle in 87 days, showing no signs of his facial injury as he ploughed into the defence. With Ronald Mulitalo putting down the ball on tackle one, the Raiders had an early advantage, and made the most of it.

Dunamis Lui almost charged over beneath the posts on play two, and Will Kennedy cleaned up a Sam Williams grubber on the last, but not without Williams bringing him to ground in goal, forcing the first dropout before the Sharkies had really touched the football. Braydon Trindall sent it fifty metres into the breeze, but Lui had it back at the thirty by the end of the first carry, earning his men the first restart in the process.

Tom Starling followed Lui with a big run at the posts, and Cronulla collapsed on the next tackle, when Lui barged through on the left edge, steamrolling over Trindall to get the Steeden down. With Williams slotting through the conversion, the Raiders were over a point per minute, while the Sharks hadn’t completed a set. Still, they did well to trap Cotric in the corner at the start of the restart, and contained a possible Lui offload on his seventh carry, forcing Matt Frawley to kick from the Canberra end.

Six and a half minutes in, Cronulla finally had an attacking opportunity, getting a restart late in the tackle count, when Braden Hamlin-Uele broke through successive tackles and eventually required five of Canberra’s biggest men to hold up him up ten metres out. Things escalated quickly from here, as the Sharkies built on Hamlin-Uele’s field position with a deft left sweep, funneling the footy out through Kennedy to Mulitlalo, who made up for his opening error by confronting Cotric right on the line.

This was a massive defensive effort from the Canberra winger, especially since Mulitalo twisted away from him right at the point of contact – and in real time it did look like he had forced his fellow no. 5 into a second effort. Yet the on-field ruling was try, while the Bunker footage confirmed that Mulitalo had indeed maintained control over the footy the whole time, even when it was wedged between Cotric’s legs in the midst of the tackle.

With such a momentum-changer the Raiders needed to prevent Cronulla getting to the end of their restart. As it turned out, the Sharkies didn’t even begin it, as Mulitalo bookended his try with a second poor play on his own try line. Full credit goes to Adam Cook for a massive kick off that Mulitalo only secured once it had bounced back in goal, where he shifted it right on the dead ball line to Kennedy, who was always going to be dragged into touch to concede Canberra the dropout.

That said, the green machine didn’t do much with their advantage, as Mawene Hiroti got some joy after a missed conversion by stripping the Steeden from Starling on the second play, settling the match into a more level playing field at the ten minute mark. For the first time, both teams went set for set, giving the Sharkies time to stretch their legs and elasticitse into more fluid, free-floating footy, while also bunching the Raiders in their own end.

Even so, Lui was close to 100 metres, and Frawley managed a great clutch kick under pressure from Hamlin-Uele. The Raiders got their next chance with the first midfield scrum, off a wayward Wade Graham pass that ricocheted off Teig Wilton’s hip. They made some good headway up the right edge, where Corey Harawira-Naera leaped up to catch a high ball from Cook, and Matthew Timoko regathered and dragged three defenders five metres after CHN lost it along the ground.

Like Cronulla, Canberra followed a big upfield push with a rapid shift to the left, although the change in direction here came from a kick rather than a sweep – a beautiful chip from Frawley that Kennedy and Harley Smith-Shields chased down. The young no. 4 nearly popped it back for Cotric, but his left calf slid onto the chalk, propelling him over the sideline and into the corner padding, raising a brief question about whether a finger injury might prevent him returning to the field of play.

For a moment it looked like the Sharkies might channel this frustrated momentum on their next set, when Hiroti found open space on their own right wing, and searched for options. He offloaded to Connor Tracey, but the footy ricocheted off the young half’s elbow, allowing Canberra to resume their rhythm with a dropout at the end of the next set, when Nene Macdonald ushered a great Frawley grubber into touch, unaware that Kennedy had already got a finger to it in backplay.

Two tackles later, the Raiders got a restart, and Timoko came up with another clutch play on the right edge, dancing along the sideline under big pressure from Bryson Goodwin, before popping it out the back for Cotric to bring the footy back in field. Three tackles later, the play came to a stop as Lui halted dead in his tracks, only to reach out and almost score again, before Cotric finally got his try – this time on the other side of the park, off a Williams grubber that was always going to find his man.

In some ways, Lui’s near-putdown was even more spectacular in slow motion, especially given the pause that had preceded it – reaching out his hand through a swathe of Cronulla jerseys, and then pausing once more to avoid risking an incomplete grounding. You could say Lui’s caution was the real assist for Cotric, or at least an equivalent assist to Williams, who added the extras to bring Canberra to an eight point lead as the sky turned purple over Jubilee.

The Raiders now scored the first of two pairs of back-to-back tries that consolidated their advantage in the quarters before and after the break. Both of these first two tries were facilitated by Tom Starling linebreaks, culminating Canberra’s long journey back from Josh Hodgson’s injury against the Storm in Round 9. At first, it looked like the game might swing back Cronulla’s way, as the first penalty of the night went to Sami Valemei, who was called offside within the ten.

Yet Starling compensated with a sublime long-range break, getting his men in place to capitalise on a ruck error off Scott Sorensen, and then breaking through Sorensen right on the line a few tackles later, when he offered a superb short-range sequel to his earlier play. Once he’d disposed of Sorenson out of dummy half, Starling burrowed beneath Hamlin-Uele, pivoting the Steeden off the big man’s right leg to get it down on his first go, scoring right under the crossbars for an easy Williams conversion.  

Starling wasn’t done yet, coming up with an even more daring linebreak on the next set, when he dummied dramatically to the left, and then kicked at speed for Williams to secure the Steeden on the first bounce, and score in his first game as captain, before converting his own try a moment later. This was a terrific moment for the Raiders’ second-choice spine, and yet the Sharks followed them by scoring off a penalty seven minutes later, when Wilton was pinged for a high hit on Cook.

Tracey responded with his best kick of the night – a clean, well-timed boot to the right edge, where Macdonald sailed into the air and fumbled it so fluidly down his body that it almost felt like a deliberate play, since it curled the footy away from any of the defenders and straight into the chest of Briton Nikora, who fended off Smith-Shields and curved around to score under the posts. Kicking from right in front, Hiroti now got his first conversion, even if the footy hit the upright before clearing the crossbar.

This wasn’t a bad result for the Sharks’ eighth halves pairing of the season – and their fifth in the last six weeks – but they couldn’t capitalise on it. Kennedy became the biggest casualty of the breeze that had been blowing over Kogarah all evening, reaching out both hands to collect the kickoff, but instead sending it off his right boot. Still, the Sharkies ended with a successful Captain’s Challenge to confirm a Valemei error, and a last burst of field position off a Starling ruck error.

Nevertheless the Raiders came back strong after the break, putting down their second pair of tries to prevent any question of a Cronulla comeback. They had to wait a short period though, since Andrew Fifita got away a good offload on the first set, and the Sharkies received a penalty late in the tackle count off an illegal strip from CHN. Fifita offloaded again on the second, and Kennedy sent it off the boot to the left, where the bounce defied Cook, who reached out his left hand but couldn’t quite secure it.

Kennedy put the ball down, but this time the clutch decision went against Cronulla, as the Bunker deemed that Goodwin had knocked the footy into Cook before Kennedy got to it. Still, the Sharkies had their first dropout, and were well on their way to rivalling Cronulla’s opening field position. If they’d scored here they might have controlled the second half, but instead Graham lost the ball at the end of the tackle count, and Canberra settled into their next tryscoring groove.

Timoko got them rolling with another terrific run on the short side, showing the footy in his right hand as Graham and Mulitalo converged on him, looking for an offload until the very last second. While the hosts got the ball back, they turned it over on tackle one, when the wind assisted a Nikora pass forward to Macdonald out on the wing. Four tackles out of the scrum, Starling stepped into the spotlight again – this time with an assist out of dummy half for Kai O’Donnell, who put down his first try under the posts.

Full credit goes to O’Donnell too, for the speed of his run, which saw him hit the Steeden fast enough to simply slice past Jack Williams, with none of the other Cronulla forwards getting much of a hand to him. The other Williams slotted it through from right in front, Cotric nearly broke through the line on the restart, O’Donnell followed with a punishing run up the middle, and Frawley hoisted it to the left edge, where Macdonald fumbled it to gift the Raiders a scrum from the ten.

Once again they scored out of the scrum, thanks to some further field position when Billy Magoulias was pinged for being offside within the ten, albeit saving a Lui try in the process. Both men got some medical attention before play resumed, and the Raiders benefited from the short break, as Soliola took a soft tackle to get them rolling, Young hardened it up, O’Donnell went to earth to avoid an obstruction, and Soliola finally fielded a real hit-up to clear up space for Frawley to smash over.

Receiving the footy five metres out, Frawley dummied left, danced around Tracey, and then broke through a Nikora tackle before coming to ground with Hiroti on his back – an emotional moment for the Belconnen junior, who’d culminated a superb debut for the Raiders, and a circuitous journey back home via the Bulldogs, to put down his first try in lime green. Even if the wind defied Williams, the Raiders were still comfortably ahead at 10-34.

Nevertheless, the Sharkies hit back big for the first time all night, putting down their own pair of tries to make the final quarter much closer than expected. Mulitalo steadied them with a good take under Williams’ kick at the end of the restart, and while Cook was just as safe on the next set, the Raiders copped a brief blow when Cotric was temporarily disoriented by a head knock, leaving room for a massive Kennedy linebreak next time the Cronulla fullback had ball in hand.

The Sharks capitalised on this first linebreak as clinically as the Raiders had built on Starling’s first break, as Graham made up for his previous fumble by scoring in exactly the same spot where he’d lost the Steeden. The play started at the ten, where Wilton twisted around an ankle tap from Timoko and offloaded back to his skipper, whose dazzling footwork produced a clean miss from Harawira-Naera before he slammed through Cook and Timoko right on the chalk.

Hiroti secured the sideline conversion and the Sharkies got back amongst it, as Wilton broke through the line on tackle four of the restart, and Nikora offloaded to Fifita on the right edge. Fifi followed suit, popping it out to Tracey, whose kick forced Valemei to take it dead for another Cronulla dropout. This time Goodwin got the chocolates, collecting a sublime offload from Sorensen, who wrested his arm out of a three man tackle just before he hit the chalk, clearing up space for his no. 4 to slam over.

Canberra had to hit back immediately to quell this tide of points – and they did, dragging Williams back in goal after he failed to catch the kickoff on the full. The try came just as quick, as Graham opted for a short dropout, and Smith-Shields caught it on the full, dashing ten metres to cross over untouched in Cotric’s favourite part of the park. After almost breaking his arm with his almost-try, the former Gungahlin Bull had put down four in only his second game in Canberra colours.

The Sharkies might have scored twice, but the sheer speed of this sequence, from dropout to try, stunned them, ensuring they only put down one consolation try before the siren rang out. It was a good one though, as Tracey shot out a strong short ball for Nikora to bump off Starling, and swivel the right side of his torso away from Cook to ensure a clean grounding, before Hiroti added a second sideline conversion to make it a ten point game.

Yet the score remained 38-28, despite CHN being sent to the bin five minutes from the end, and despite a late linebreak from Hiroti. In an odd twist, Ash Klein also subbed off for Gerard Sutton, who didn’t have to adjudicate any more tries. Fifteen seconds out, the Raiders had their first Captain’s Challenge ratified – a good final burst to send them into their game against Cronulla at GIO next week, in what promises to be one of the best back-to-back games in years.

About Billy Stevenson (739 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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