The Raiders had only suffered defeat twice at GIO this year when they hosted the Sharks for Saturday’s Elimination Final, coming away with a twelve-point win to progress into a Grand Final rematch next week against the Roosters. On the other side of the Steeden, the Sharks had won ten and lost ten, and were still without Shaun Johnson, with Wade Graham back in the second row and Aaron Woods starting from the bench for the first time this year.
The Sharkies won the early battle of field position, thanks to a big Chad Townsend bomb that trapped Semi Valemei right onto the line. Braden Hamlin-Uele drove the young backliner over the chalk and Briton Nikora helped finish the job, getting Cronulla the first dropout two minutes into the match. They were inside the twenty by the second tackle and right on the line by the fourth, but lost momentum with a loose pass from Will Kennedy that Sione Katoa only just reeled in.
Townsend tried to steady the ship on the last with an end-over-end bomb, and while Jordan Rapana couldn’t secure it, he did knock it backwards, leaving it open for Nick Cotric to wrap under his arm in the face of an aggressive Cronulla defence – aggressive enough to force Jack Wighton to kick from within the Canberra twenty. Ronaldo Mulitalo took the first and second tackles, and Townsend continued to step up big time in Johnson’s absence with an early kick that almost produced the Sharks’ first try.
For a moment this looked like it might be the chip-and-chase of the first week of finals footy, as Townsend chased down a perfect bounce despite an escorts penalty from John Bateman. Yet the pressure of Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad and George Williams converging from either side was too much, forcing him to fumble it at the putdown. Still, Bateman’s error set Townsend up for the first penalty goal of the game, while Canberra thanked their lucky stars not to have a man off the park at this early stage.
The Sharks seemed galvanised by these early points, spending the next set making big runs up the middle, culminating with a strong carry from Toby Rudolf, so it was big when the Raiders got their first penalty off a high shot from Townsend two tackles into their next set. This was their first real field position, and Josh Papalii got them rolling with their first hit-up in Cronulla’s half, following with an offload on the second for a right sweep that ended with Cotric almost dancing around a sea of Sharks on the wing.
Joe Tapine made good on Cotric’s momentum a tackle later, collecting a short ball from Williams fifteen out and executing one of the Raiders’ best one-man efforts of the year. First he got revenge on Nikora and Hamlin-Uele for Valemei’s dropout by breaking out of a combined tackle at the seven metre mark, then he wheeled around a convergence of Cronulla jerseys, before finally slamming through Kennedy to reach out a hand to score right beside the posts for one of the hardest-won tries of the first round of finals.
This was soft defence from the Sharkies, who went from a two-point lead to a four-point deficit once Jarrod Croker booted the conversion through the posts, as Papalii took the first hit-up off the restart and Iosia Soliola followed with a barnstorming run to cement them in first gear. Cronulla had to recover rhythm here, and they almost did so with a near-linebreak from Josh Dugan on the left edge, following by a beautiful leaping catch-and-pass from Mulitalo beneath Townsend’s next bomb.
It would have been the perfect try if Connor Tracey had seen the pass coming, but instead Cotric was able to dart in and collect the football to get the green machine rolling again – the first big letoff for either side. Cronulla regained some drive with six again on the next set, and once more Dugan made a burst at the line on the left, before Townsend banana kicked towards the posts – a sublime last tackle option that forced Bateman to jump up and pop it into touch for the Sharks’ second dropout.
Williams went relatively short with the kick, only booting it to the forty, and Sione Katoa brought it twenty metres forward on the first carry, getting his men in prime attacking position by the time Blayke Brailey barged into Soliola on the second. They remained focused on the left edge before Hamlin-Uele attempted another combo with Nikora – this time a short pass that the Raiders read perfectly, bundling up the the wiry second-rower before he had a chance of making his way through the defensive line.
Still, Canberra struggled to make their way out of their own end, despite a really strong run from Tapine four tackles later, so it was a big boon when a huge Croker kick forced Kennedy to collect the ball right on the line, giving his men a chance to return the favour and force Cronulla to work it back from the twenty – that is, until Soliola was penalised for lying in the ruck, only for Rudolf to cough up the ball cold following a strong run up the middle third from Hamlin-Uele.
This should have been a consolidation point for the Raiders but instead Rudolf made up for his error with a strip on Rapana – arguably an even better result for the Sharks than if he’d never lost the ball, since they resumed play in the same position with the added assurance they could regather after their mistakes. Sure enough, Tracey made up for the other big missed chance of the game – Mulitalo’s near-assist – by sending Mulitalo across a tackle later, levelling the score after Townsend missed the extras.
This was one of Tracey’s best plays of the season – a searching run that saw him collect the footy from Brailey, dummy several times, pivot from boot to boot, and finally fend off Rapana before dancing a couple more metres to shoot out a wide bullet ball to Mulitalo, who did pretty well with the putdown too, tucking the Steeden under his right arm and burrowing into Williams to score the first wing try of the evening.
Townsend’s curved ball from the sideline was a painful reminder of Johnson’s absence – he’s only kicking at 66% – but it was quickly eclipsed by Rapana shanking it over the sideline on the kickoff, while Townsend got the chance to shine with the boot twice over the next five minutes. He got a penalty kick almost immediately, as Papalii followed Rapana’s error with an illegal strip on Rudolf while Tapine was wrapped around the big bopper’s legs, and didn’t have to wait long for a conversion either.
Both teams went set for set, until Elliott Whitehead dropped it cold in front of the posts, and then tried to ricochet it to a Raider only to send it straight to Brailey, who reached out his right hand to collect the Steeden for one of the best opportunistic tries of the year. Seizing the moment, Brailey dummied right to dispose of Papalii and then stormed through Wighton to reach out his right hand a la Tapine, getting the ball down in the same spot for exactly the one-man effort the Sharkies needed to bounce back.
This ushered in a pretty dominant period for Cronulla, who got two more dropouts over the next few minutes despite settling into a fairly error-laden sequence themselves – and this finally got the better of them nine minutes out, when they chose to tap and go only for a Towsnend pass to ricochet off the chest of Ramien and back into the hands of the Raiders, who gradually built field position off a series of successive Cronulla errors over the next four minutes.
Everything was in place, then, for Williams to upstage even Brailey’s opportunism, as the Wigan wonder set his eyes on Graham and intercepted a pass from long range, storming into collect it like he was a member of the Sharks squad, and then careening down the sideline to outpace both Scott Sorensen and then Kennedy to put the footy down untouched. With Croker missing his first sideline conversion, the Raiders were only four behind as they headed to the sheds.
The first few minutes back were a struggle for control, as a poor Townsend kick gave way to six again for Canberra, only for the Sharks to recover with three terrific plays – first, Sione Katoa forcing a second error from Whitehead, then Woodsy assisting a second great run from Tracey, and finally Mulitalo slamming over the line, where CNK spearheaded a burly pack defence to hold him up, in what turned out to be a critical turning-point, especially with Sorensen leaving early with a twisted ankle.
Just as Rudolf’s error and recoup had worked to the Sharks’ advantage earlier on, so this Cronulla surge cemented Canberra’s momentum once they survived it, with a dropped ball from Mulitalo and slow peel from Andrew Fifita on the next two tackles proving to be the last straw. Cometh the hour cometh the man, as Wighton now slammed through Hamlin-Uele and reached out his left hand for another try right beside the posts, putting the green machine ahead again when Croker converted.
This was pretty convulsive turnaround following Mulitalo’s near-try, and a volatile outcome for Graham, who’d taken himself out of the play to contest Fifita’s penalty before Wighton touched the footy, inducing several of his key players to follow suit, which was what opened up space for Wighton in the first place. Worse, Nikora was pinged straight away for a dangerous tackle – and even worse, Wighton put down a double the same set, in the key consolidation moment of the night for Canberra.
In a night of big one-man efforts, this was the most heroic, as Williams leaped up on the left edge to collect a crossfield chip from Williams, reaching his arms far above Townsend and actually fumbling the footy down the front of his jersey, but regaining possession off his right knee before any Shark could get a hand to it. He kept his elbow off the ground when he came to earth just short of the line until he could score securely, cementing Canberra’s second half dominance once Croker added the extras.
In ten short minutes the Raiders had gone from a four point deficit to an eight point lead – the biggest advantage all night – and while the Sharkies had one more try in them they would never quite recover from Wighton’s superb double. Canberra got their next chance a set later, when Katoa slipped over while collecting the kick, and this time Graham got his Captain’s Challenge, claiming the Steeden had hit the outside of Katoa’s shoulder rather than constituting a knock-on.
It was a close call, and so unsurprising that the Bunker deemed the footy had hit Katoa’s arm, costing the Sharks even more momentum as the Raiders lined up to take the scrum from the ten. In the best potential turnaround of the game, however, Cronulla contested the scrum more vigorously than any team this year, securing a small victory when the Raiders wasted their own Captain’s Challenge to contest a Williams on (Jack) Williams knock-on at the back of the feed.
The Sharkies now packed the scrum at the ten with no remaining Challenges for either team, while play was paused a set later for Fifita, who landed at a nasty angle on his left arm and then copped a knee in the face from Whitehead after a massive low tackle from Wighton – one of the best of the game on a big player – leaving the park with a huge bruise on his head for an HIA while Hudson Young was also examined for collateral damage.
Between the two Captain’s Challenges, the two scrums and Fifi’s examination, the Sharks had succeeded in diluting some of the splendid momentum of Wighton’s double, so they stood a chance of a comeback if they could flip the switch here. They started well, with a combined tackle from Brailey and Nikora that forced a knock-on from Young, and yet the ex-Branxton Colt made up for it in style, laying the foundation for the try that finally put Canberra beyond Cronulla a few minutes later.
For a moment it looked like Young might go it alone, executing a sublime linebreak up the left edge that saw him fend off Tracey and come to ground beneath Nikora but still manage a quick play-the-ball that set up Wighton to assist Williams for the hardest of all the one-man efforts of the match – a damaging run that saw him surge through Woods and Talakai to get the Steeden down beside the right post, the preferred tryscoring location for both teams this evening.
With a restart on the restart it looked like we might be in for another Canberra try, especially with Young taking on Nikora once again, and Tapine almost breaking through the line before popping out a deft offload to CNK, so it was big letoff for the Sharkies when Young coughed it up on his second carry. Yet the visitors still couldn’t capitalise, as Katoa made his second disastrous error on play one, this time losing the Steeden after he seemed to have secured it in both hands.
Five minutes later, Whitehead got some joy after an inconsistent night, chasing down a Croker kick, collecting it in both hands before Kennedy could get there, and rolling over onto it for the final Canberra try of the game, making it 32 points after Croker missed his last conversion attempt. A bit of a messy period now ensued for the Raiders, however, despite a pair of linebreaks from CNK and Croker, although the Sharks couldn’t capitalise on until the seventy-eighth minute.
This was the very definition of a consolation try, as Katoa got his own back for Williams’ intercept try, collecting a Whitehead ball and then outpacing the Canberra halfback to score the last try of the night for the Sharks. In the way this replicated Williams’ long-range try, in the way it cancelled out Whitehead’s late game resurgence, and in the joy it brought Katoa after two spotty errors under this high ball, this could and should have been a game-changer if it had occurred twenty or even ten minutes before.
Instead, there were only forty-five seconds left on the clock after Townsend booted through the last conversion of the game, meaning that the Raiders are set for a Grand Final rematch against the Roosters when they meet next week at the SCG. That said, the Sharkies can still hold their heads high, since even without Johnson they put down one of their gutsiest games of the season, and could very well have won it with a few more luckier moments and tighter plays.