Canberra’s win over the Sharks on Saturday night may turn out to be the pivotal moment in their finals push. Despite losing Jack Wighton halfway through, they went back-to-back for the first time this season since Rounds 1 and 2, uncannily mirroring the Cowboys-Roosters clash with a 34-18 win that hung in the balance at the sixty minute mark. Put that down, in part, to one of the best ever games for Corey Harawira-Naera, who had eight tackle busts and six offloads, as well as an incredible second stint for Xavier Savage, who may well be the future of the Canberra backline if he continues to play as brilliantly and unpredictably as he did here.
Emre Guler took the first run, and then the second, as the Sharks drove in to force Josh Hodgson to make his opening kick within the forty. Will Kennedy did brilliantly with the kick return, and Cronulla got six again a tackle later, off a ruck infringement from Iosia Soliola, but they didn’t get to the end of their set, as Braydon Trindall flicked it forward to Connor Tracey on the wing. The Raiders now had the first scrum feed, and Xavier Savage made up for their sluggish first set with a terrific run to ensure they were inside the Cronulla forty by play three.
Corey Harawira-Naera elasticised the set on the fourth, sweeping across the defence and offloading to Guler, before Savage danced back to the right side of the park, so it was somewhat antliclimactic when the Sharks scrambled to clean up Jordan Rapana with the football on the last. Rapana took out his frustration with a strong kick return, fending off Shaun Johnson and eluding Jesse Ramien, while Hodgson made some headway up the middle with a dummy and run into Teig Wilton, only to cough up the footy a couple of tackles later.
In doing so, he aborted the momentum of a strong offload from Guler, who’d been quite dominant during these early passages of play. The Sharks now moved through a couple of big runs from the forward pack, but Rapana was just as strong under the kick, leaping up to collect a Johnson bomb with a sea of Cronulla jerseys converging on him. CHN consolidated with his second offload of the game – even clutchier this time, right on the ground to Savage – and then took another big run on the line, almost reaching out a hand to slam the Steeden down.
The defence cleaned big Corey up, but he didn’t give up on the play, popping out his third and best offload – a one-hander back to Savage, who caught it low, and dove down to the ground to send it out through Sebastian Kris for Rapana to bump off a couple of defenders and score the first try. It turned into an eight-point try, as Trindall was pinged for a high tackle as Rapana was grounding the footy – a high tackle so technical it was hard to discern even in slo-mo. Jarrod Croker executed both kicks, and Canberra were eight ahead with twelve minutes gone.
The Sharks seemed momentarily stunned by this turn of events, dwindling their kick chase to nothing as Johnson bombed to Semi Valemei’s corner next time they had ball in hand. Meanwhile, CHN went from strength to strength, flicking the footy out to Kris, who surged up the left edge and laid a platform for Jack Wighton to set up a dropout on the other side of the park. Kennedy only booted it to the Cronulla forty, and the Raiders were right on the line by tackle two, as CHN once again came down right on the chalk but didn’t quite get an arm free.
Canberra got their next burst of field position when Aaron Woods was pinged for a high shot on Hudson Young, although they elected to take the kick, making it ten unanswered points when Croker sliced through his third two-pointer. They charged up the middle on the restart, galvanised by a terrific Soliola carry, so when Wighton dropped it cold on play the four the Sharkies had a shot at absorbing all this momentum for themselves. Three plays later, Woodsy took the first tackle in the Canberra red zone, but the kick option came apart on the right side.
Still, Cronulla got a big boost with two successive restarts on their next set, due to a pair of ruck errors from Joseph Tapine and Young – and this fuelled them into their first try. This was more or less a one-man effort, as Ramien collected a short ball from Kennedy at an oblique angle, and showcased the best footwork of the night to accelerate and pivot away from the defence, building up enough speed to dispose of Savage and Ryan Sutton right on the line. It was just the hard, fast, tough run the Sharks needed, bringing them to six once Trindall kicked.
They got an augmented restart too, or at least seemed to, when Hodgson was pinged for a strip on Jack Williams early in the count. Yet the Raiders responded with a well-judged Captain’s Challenge, proving that Williams had lost the ball cold coming down in the three-man tackle, turning a Cronulla penalty (on the restart no less) into a Canberra scrum feed. Savage got them rolling with a big run up the right wing, Tapine took a duo of charges in front of the crossbar, and the Raiders headed left, where Ramien did well to contain a Valemei try.
The Sharks were now 20-6 with missed tackles, and got another blow when Sione Katoa followed Williams by losing the footy into a Hodgson hit – Cronulla’s second successive cough-up in the wake of their first try. CHN was just as restless at the start of the next Canberra set, although the Sharks were able to contain him a little more successfully this time, repeating this defensive push with a massive pack effort to hold up Young on the other side of the park.
Despite these tackles, the Raiders looked really dangerous on their final plays. Hodgson sent a soaring wide ball out to Rapana, who offloaded for Kris to bump into a couple of defenders and almost make his way to the line. Sam Williams then chipped under pressure to the left edge, where Wighton leaped up to get both hands to the footy, and actually sent it back down to Croker, albeit guiding it forward in the process. This was a significant let-off for Cronulla, who got their next try and took the lead for the first time off a terrific pair of plays from Katoa.
The first came in defence, as Katoa surged in low to force Valemei to pop a boot over the sideline when he took the next Cronulla kick. The Sharks consolidated from here, settling into their first really convincing attack from close range, culminating with a deft right edge play – a wide ball from Johnson to Kennedy, who mirrored Savage by taking it right on the ground, not exactly diving, but certainly swivelling around a Valemei tackle to offload it out to Katoa.
Katoa now translated defence into attack, burning up the wing and dancing over an ankle tap from Wighton, eventually leaving the Canberra five-eighth entirely behind him for a try that felt untouched. Trindall added the extras, Croker and Tom Starling conceded a pair of penalties on the restart, and the Sharkies set in for what looked like back-to-back tries. Wilton was held up over the chalk on tackle two (no surprise that it was CHN who got under the footy), so it was agonising when Braden Hamlin-Uele spilled it forward beside the right post.
The Raiders now had their own let-off, and a chance to take the lead in the last three minutes before the break. Tapine and Starling made their thirteenth and fourteenth offloads respectively – well past their average of ten per game – and then got a penalty on the last when Tracey was called offside beneath Wighton’s last kick of the first stanza. Croker added the penalty shot, wrapping it up at twelve points apiece as both teams headed into the sheds.
Valemei had to get down on his knees to take Johnson’s first bomb back, and the Raiders got a restart off his take, which tempted Ramien into a ruck infringement a second later. Papalii and Savage added to the offload count immediately – Papalii with a terrific pass right on his back, and Savage with one of the best runs of his career to date. Careening away from a weak Johnson tackle, he burned up the field, pivoting from boot to boot, and flicked it out to Starling, as Kennedy came in with a last-ditch ankle tap that Savage barely seemed to notice.
Starling continued the momentum, bringing the Steeden right to the line, and lobbing it out one-handed to Wighton, who caught it one-handed, and lifted it right up to his head to contend with a Katoa tackle, dancing around the Cronulla winger so dextrously that he barely brushed a fingertip before the try was slammed down. Croker might have missed his first conversion, but this was still a barnstorming way for the Raiders to resume their lead after the break – especially since there was some talk of Wighton leaving the park with a rib injury.
The Sharkies didn’t take long to hit back though, as Kennedy scrambled to scoop up the kick on the restart, and Trindall got them rolling with a left edge play of their own. Running deep into the line, he flicked the footy out to Tracey, who split the difference between a regular pass and a catch-and-pass – a beautiful ball that landed square on the chest of Mulitalo, who had ample space to pop down the softest try of the night, untouched, right in the corner; exactly the kind of breakaway play he deserves in the wake of his recent Maroons heartbreak.
Trindall bookended it with a superb sideline conversion, and just like that the Sharks had recovered a two-point lead, although this would also turn out to be the last time that they scored. Over the next half hour, the Raiders would rack up eighteen unanswered points, cementing this as one of their best comebacks of the last twelve months, especially given their declining form over the later part of the season. They got rolling again pretty quickly too, as Savage replicated Valemei’s take on the ground, and also garnered his men six more plays.
Starling glimpsed a hole in the line on tackle four, and Valemei tried to barge over in his slipstream, but the Sharks stayed staunch in defence, although one of their trainers was cautioned for backchat when Papalii was pinged for a head clash with Wilton. Toby Rudolf had just come off the bench, and galvanised the forward pack with his first carry, only for CHN to prove why he’d been the most impressive big man on the park, reprising his brilliant opening quarter with a clean steal on Aiden Tolman after Tapine pulled back from the tackle.
Tolman took out his frustration with a high shot on Savage a set later, and this almost broke the dam wide open, as Starling dummied, and sent it left for Williams and Wighton to clear up some space for Croker in the corner. Croker also dummied, and genuinely seemed to consider the flick pass out to Valemei, only to go it alone, forcing Johnson and Katoa into the single most scrambling defensive play of the evening as they (just) converged on him in time.
Nevertheless, this incredible surge ushered in a consolidation period for Canberra as the final quarter arrived. Mulitalo knocked on the next high ball while contesting it with Rapana, and CHN followed with yet another offload, this time to Hodgson, before Savage had the best kick return of his career to date, breaking through the line on tackle one and covering thirty metres. There was a brief potential for a lull here, as Savage slowly got to his feet, and Wighton finally left the park, but the Raiders didn’t miss a beat, scoring on their very next set.
They were boosted upfield by a high shot from Ramien on Rapana – deemed a shoulder charge, although that was questionable – and scored the easiest try of the game two plays later. It came from Hudson Young, who collected a Williams offload, shrugged off a limp tackle from Briton Nikora, and seemed startled to find nothing but open space ahead of him. He virtually strolled to the line, setting up Croker for his easiest conversion of the evening as well.
The Sharks had missed 45 tackles, compared to Canberra’s 18, and yet the Raiders now settled into a second mini-slump, as Savage struggled with his left shoulder, and the kick chase put powerful pressure on Rapana at the end of Johnson’s next bomb. Siosifa Talakai absolutely skittled Ryan James a moment later, forcing him into a play-the-ball error – and while the replay clearly showed the big Cronulla forward taking a second shot as James played at it, Grant Atkins had made his call, and there was no option to challenge this particular sequence.
Momentum continued to go Cronulla’s way as Canberra broke the scrum too early, but instead of taking the penalty the Sharkies opted to pack it one more time, only for their bref surge to end when Rudolf knocked it on early the count. Now it was Canberra’s turn to take the scrum feed, which they parlayed into their last surge. Two sets later, Savage, still nursing a bad shoulder, celebrated a terrific night by scoring the first try of his NRL career, on the back of CHN’s last big play – young gun and veteran linking to thwart any chance of golden point.
The sequence started with a Williams bomb to the left corner, where Katoa collected it and then shifted it across to Mulitalo, who coughed up into a barnstorming tackle spearheaded by CHN. Corey grabbed the footy when it ricocheted out of the maelstrom, and flicked it out for Kris to send Savage through the line. Curving around untouched behind the crossbar, the young fullback set up an easy kick for Croker, while the Sharks were suddenly down to twelve after Talakai was binned for a marginal hit that was light years from his tackle on Matt Doorey.
Johnson went short with the kickoff and Savage collected it for another terrific return, while CHN came up with another barnstorming run on the fourth carry, guiding his men into a fresh set only to make his first and last mistake with an obstruction play three tackles later. The Raiders sent it upstairs, and were denied, but it hardly mattered, since they scored on their very next carry. Kennedy lost the footy late in the intervening Cronulla set, Valemei scooped it up, and coasted half the field for a final four-pointer that Croker converted with no trouble.
Seeing Valemei cruise into open space was the perfect conclusion to this pivotal Canberra game, which may be the critical match in rebooting their season and galvanising them into a decent finals berth. They’re now sitting at ninth, just below the Sharkies at eighth, so they’ll be keen to make the most of Mitchell Moses’ absence when they take on the Eels on Thursday night. On the other side of the Steeden, this was an agonising loss for Cronulla, who’ll be looking to cement their hold on the top eight with a decimating win over the Dogs on Sunday.