Cronulla needed a decisive win to fuel their finals push when they hosted the Dogs on Sunday afternoon, and they got it – up to a point. While they scored 44 points, and came away with a 20-point lead, they still allowed the bottom-placed team in the comp to rack up four converted tries. They also suffered a major blow at the end of the first half, when Shaun Johnson left the park with a hamstring injury after orchestrating a sublime sweep of tries while Luke Thompson was in the bin – one of the most focused Cronulla sequences of 2021.
Yet the Bulldogs capitalised on Johnson’s absence as clinically as the Sharkies had built on Thompson’s, taking control of the game when they returned from the break with a tryscoring period that was almost as good, culminating with the best run of the game from Thompson, who finally got some joy by disposing of almost the entire Cronulla forward pack. By the final siren, the Sharkies had finally wrested control again, following a series of big individual efforts from both outfits, but the win wasn’t quite as decisive as the opening forty initially suggested.
Jake Averillo took the first kick in his own end, while the Sharks rolled it up the park for their first set, putting Shaun Johnson in good position for a bomb to the right edge from twenty metres out. Jayden Okunbor did well to leap up and collect it on the full, but Briton Nikora and Sione Katoa were right there with the kick chase, so Cronulla got a goal line dropout on their very first set. They got their first restart on the repeat set, off a Jeremy Marshall-King ruck error, and came close to their first try a few plays later, off their first sweep to the right.
Kennedy shifted the footy to Ramien, who popped it out to Katoa on the wing. He almost got around Okunbor, outdoing the Canterbury backliner’s previous leap by soaring into space over the sideline, only to (just) put it dead in goal, placing the tip of the Steeden on the chalk as he tumbled into touch. The Dogs had seven tackles to play with now, which they parlayed into a decent set, ending with their first sustained attack on the Cronulla line, but this time Okunbor wasn’t as good under the high ball, allowing Averillo’s kick to sail over the left edge.
They got their first restart early in the next set, when Aaron Woods infringed the ruck, but didn’t do much with it, since Ava Seumanufagai put down a JMK pass out of dummy half a few plays later. The Sharkies now started elasticising, as Nikora made the first offload of the afternoon out the back to Shaun Johnson, Ramien busted through a Luke Thompson tackle and Braydon Trindall improvised a kick on the go. Unfortunately, it wasn’t well timed or placed, meaning Nick Meaney was able to take it on the full without any real chase pressure.
Yet the Sharks settled into a period of consolidation and correction on their next two sets, starting with another combination from Nikora and Ramien, who continued their playmaking push from the previous set. Receiving the footy early in the count, Nikora fended off Lewis, bumped off Okunbor, and then disposed of Aaron Schoupp, before shifting it across to Ramien, who had Katoa on his inside, and even Johnson for the cut-out, but didn’t read the play quickly enough, leaving Meaney the split-second he needed to clean up up on the spot.
Cronulla regathered quickly on the next play, sweeping it across to the left edge, where Siosifa Talakai took a big hit right in front of the posts. Once again, Trindall and Meaney came together on the last, and Trindall also corrected his mistimed kick from the previous set, now opting for a dab right on the chalk that the Canterbury fullback was forced to ground in goal. Finally, a few tackles into the dropout, Brailey and Johnson corrected Katoa’s aborted try with a pair of huge passes – Brailey out of dummy half, Johnson in front of the chest of Okunbor.
Katoa crossed over untouched, Trindall added the extras, and the Dogs had now conceded the first try in eleven successive games, while their woes worsened with the kickoff – a truly awful strike from Meaney, who booted it a good five metres over the sideline. Canterbury got a big let-off when Nikora put down a Johnson pass four tackles later, but the Sharks regathered on their next set, when Trindall mirrored Johnson with a cut-out assist on the other wing, sending Mulitalo across with a wide ball that careened across Corey Allan’s chest.
The Sharks had 82% of possession over the last ten minutes, and 22 play-the-balls to Canterbury’s six, so the hosts had to make the most of a fairly average restart, apart from a punishing run from Talakai early in the count. Thompson bookended the next period of possession, making five metres after contact to set up his men for their own sequence of self-correction. The set ended with Averillo grubbering to the left corner, where Katoa could conceivably have let it go dead, but played it safe as the Doggies’ half stormed up behind him.
Seumanufagai got the next set rolling with two big runs – the first up the middle, and the second after the Dogs took it out to the right wing and then back in again. History now repeated itself, as Lewis followed Averillo with a grubber to the left edge that once again looked overlong, only to bounce just dangerously enough that Katoa opted to pop it into touch with Schoupp at his back. Woods conceded another six again on the first tackle, and Thompson continued his post-contact metres with a splendid run at the line on the next play.
This was exactly the try Canterbury needed to get back on the board – tough and direct. Receiving the footy at the ten, Thompson simply barged at the line, bumping off Woodsy and Jack Williams, and barely registering Kennedy as he got the ball down. Averillo converted, but the Dogs declined quickly now, as Dylan Napa opted to offload on the first tackle of the restart, flinging the football between Corey Waddell and Schoupp, and Thompson took out his frustration at the shift in possession (and another restart) with a very late hit on Brailey.
The level of force was deemed whiplash, so Thompson was put on report and sent from the field – fair enough, given the lateness of the hit, but pretty inconsistent as a call on the strength of the contact, given the Flegler-Yeo incident the night before. Trindall took the penalty kick, and the Sharkies now reprised the last-tackle option the started their night – a Johnson bomb to the right, where Okunbor again got both hands to it, only to lose it this time.
The Sharks had six again, and settled into the toughest goal line attack so far, starting with a crash play from Braden Hamlin-Uele beside the right post, and ending with a Johnson offload to Brailey, who tried to follow in Thompson’s footsteps beside the left post, where he was only just held up by the Canterbury defence. The gutsiness of this David-on-Goliath effort should have galvanised Cronulla, but somehow Schoupp managed to elude their kick chase and bring Johnson’s grubber back into the field of play. Still, they wouldn’t take long to score.
They came up with their best sequence of the night on the very next set – an intensified and improved version of the earlier Johnson-Katoa combo. This time Johnson drifted across field, showing it in his right hand, and then making a secondary dummy that was so convincing Ramien didn’t even seem to realise his halfback had lured him into a decoy run. No surprise that it deceived Meaney and Schoupp as well, as Johnson swerved away from the defence and shot the Steeden out to the right edge, where it bounced off the turf half a metre in field.
Not only did Katoa catch the footy, but he also caught Johnson’s swerve, swaying down the sideline in perfect sync, before reaching out his left hand, landing Steeden-first, and executing a full handstand by the time he’d secured the try. Trindall missed the kick but the Sharkies were still two converted tries ahead with the penalty, while Johnson stepped into the spotlight again on the restart with two more passes for Nikora – on the third, for a deft change of direction, and then on the fourth, when he ran deep into line before shifting it to his no. 4.
Nikora responded in kind, running even deeper into the line, and offloading with one hand through an Okunbor tackle for Katoa to break into space up the right wing, where he popped it back inside to Kennedy at just the right moment. The Cronulla fullback briefly considered shifting it inside again, with Okunbor at his heels, only to realise he had space to go it alone, eventually crasing over untouched and curving behind the posts once he’d disposed of the Canterbury winger. Trindall added the kick, and the Sharks were quadruple the Dogs at 24-6.
Yet Cronulla now got their biggest blow of the night, since it turned out that Johnson’s sublime streak had ended with one pivot too many. He’d done his right hamstring, and headed to the bench, where he remained for the rest of the match as Mawene Hiroti came on earlier than expected. The Sharks needed a big set now to regather around their key playmaker’s departure, and the big men delivered, taking control of the park and flexing their metre-eating skills for the best single passage of play by either team’s forward pack during the entire game.
Royce Hunt celebrated his return to the NRL with an offload back to Trindall on tackle two, Hamlin-Uele followed with a big run up the middle, and Trindall got Tracey in place for a superb short ball assist for Talakai on the left edge. In only his ninth appearance of the season, the Sharkies’ favourite workhorse danced over a Hopoate ankle tap, bumped off Meaney, and set up Trindall for an easy conversion – a dominant display as the Sharks headed to the sheds.
Canterbury had clearly paid dearly for Thompson’s time in the bin. He’d returned just before Talakai’s try, but the Sharks were still fuelled by the one-man advantage. With more time on the park, and with Johnton still present, they might have maintained this state of flow for some time, and continued to play as if they were still facing a twelve-man opposition. But the break gave the Bulldogs time to regather, and by the time they returned they’d steeled themselves to make the most of Johnson’s absence, and shut down the torrent of Sharks tries.
Conversely, Talakai followed his sublime run by losing the footy into a combined tackle from Hoppa and Averillo. The Dogs had some promising moments early in the subsequent set, including two tough runs from Renouf Atoni, and a Waddell offload to Lewis on the left edge. The set gradually came apart in the later tackles, thanks to a slo-mo, low-stakes left sweep, and yet this slowness finally worked to Lewis’ advantage when he arrived at the kick, since his signature as a halfback lies in his uncanny ability to morph time when he gets boot to ball.
Sure enough, the leisurely pace produced one of his best strikes of the night – direct to the right try line, where Meaney just had to catch it and fall down to score the next Canterbury try. That’s not to say this wasn’t a terrific take from Meaney either – hands in the air, a metre above the Cronulla pack – but that the try was deceptively casual, which made it all the more threatening for a Sharks outfit that had been so clinical in their goal line defence during the opening act. Averillo added the extras, and now it was the Bulldogs’ turn to go back-to-back.
They had one of their bes and strongest sets on the restart, cascading through a series of flamboyant offloads – late efforts from Hoppa to Allan, and Jackson to Thompson, and then one of the weirdest pieces of second-phase play this year from Thommo, who lopped a vertical ball out to Joe Stimson as he brushed off the slightest of touches from Jack Williams. This elasticity got Averillo in place for a good kick, and Meaney was just as good this time, collecting it on the full, clutching it into his chest, and offloaded to Napa, who twisted and spun through Kennedy and Ramien to get some joy after his botched try during the first half.
The Sharks got another scare on the next restart, when JMK made a mad dush out of dummy half, opening up a gap in the defensive line for Meaney, who broke into space, surged up field, and made an additional five metres after almost tripping over a Nikora ankle tap. The Dogs headed left, where Ramien managed to shut down the play with a tough tackle on Napa, but even so Canterbury had completely reversed the stats, with 84% of the ball since the break.
Cronulla needed a one-man effort to get back in the game – and they got it from Brailey a few minutes later. In one of his deftest plays from dummy half this year, the young hooker received the footy on the line, dummied left, shifted it from hand to hand, and finally popped it inside to Rudolf. Napa had scored a barnstorming try, but he conceded one here, storming in with Atoni to try and hold up the big Cronulla prop, and coming reasonably close, only for Rudolf to reach out his arm a second time and get the ball down for an easy Trindall conversion.
He added his own eccentric take on the try celebratons that have popped up since lockdown – lying down behind the line and pretending to go to sleep, as if reminding the Bulldogs that the Sharks could afford to be leisurely and languorous in their attack as well. By this stage, we were at a point of brinksmanship where both teams were depending upon bigger and bigger individual efforts to get the upper hand. The Bulldogs hit back as soon as they had ball in hand, when Thompson enjoyed the best run of the night, and one of the best of the season.
Receiving the footy from Bailey Biondi-Odo at the halfway line, he put his sin bin behind him by basically beating the entire Cronulla forward pack in one sublime charge. First he got past Woods, then he bumped off Talakai, before fending off Andrew Fifita, skipping over a Rudolf ankle tap, and sailing into open space fifteen metres out. As if that weren’t enough, he now pivoted off the left boot for a sudden change in direction, squared up Kennedy, and offloaded through a second Talakai tackle to Averillo, who skidded away from Hiroti to score untouched.
Averillo added the extras, bringing it to a twelve point game on the cusp of the final quarter, while Ramien tried to match Thommo’s run with a tough carry up the right edge a minute later. He got over the line, as Okunbor, Meaney and Lewis stormed in defence, and would have scored if Lewis hadn’t got his legs in place – perhaps inadvertently – just beneath the Steeden. The Sharks still had a goal line dropout, and another, this time more contentiously.
Trindall made the initial grubber, and Schoupp clearly played at it, ricocheting it back into Trindall before the footy careened over the dead ball line without any more players getting a boot to it. The Bulldogs sent it upstairs, and in slow motion you could see why, since it was almost impossible to discern the intentionality behind Trindall’s touch, especially as he kept his eyes on the footy during the entire sequence. In the end, the Bunker denied the challenge, although the Dogs got a letoff anyway when Tracey lobbed a left-edge pass over the sideline.
The Dogs now got their first touch of the football in about five minutes, bringing it all the way down Cronulla’s end, where Hoppa stepped away from Rudolf, but found nobody in place to break into space. The set deflated, Averillo ended with his worst kick, and Katoa outdid Hoppa’s run a moment later, making more metres and coming closer to a linebreak. The Sharks started to elasticise again, changing directions several times before Williams flicked out a spectulative offload in front of the posts, forcing Averillo to plunge onto it from offside.
Trindall slotted through the penalty kick as Seumanufagai headed off for an HIA, Thompson returned for one last stint, and Brailey got his men a restart with a strong run out of dummy half early in the following set. Cronulla didn’t score here, but they did well to bunch the Dogs deep down in their own end with a pair of big pack efforts on Schoupp and Okunbor. Lewis did well to recoup some field position with a massive strike at the end of it all, but by now the Sharks were finally back in first gear, and scored the final try of the evening on their next set.
The play started with Williams, who popped out a short ball, midway up the park, that very nearly put Hamlin-Uele through the line. Even so, the big bopper offloaded on his knees to Tracey, who burned up the left, got around Meaney, and then tumbled through Meaney’s ankle tap to get the Steeden on the line. Both the try and the assist had occurred mid-fall, which spoke to the courage with which Cronulla had regathered since Johnson left the park.
Despite the 24-44 win, this was still a sobering game for the Sharkies, who’d conceded four converted tries to the lowest ranked team in the comp, and lost their key playmaker in the buildup to finals footy. They’ll be looking for a much cleaner scoreline when they take on Manly next week, while on the other side of the Steeden, the Bulldogs can hold their heads high after their surge of second half tries – a good motivator for their match against the Titans.