ROUND 24: Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks v. Brisbane Broncos (Suncorp Stadium, 28/8/21, 24-16)
The Broncos beat Cronulla 26-18 in Round 16 but it was almost the reverse scoreline here, bringing the Sharkies closer to a top eight spot after they edged the Raiders out of the eight. Luke Metcalf was starting at five-eighth again after a great game against the Tigers last week, while Matt Moylan was coming off the bench, and Andrew Fifita looked healthy on the sideline after the fright of his induced coma a mere fortnight ago. Add to that a Storm outfit who are likely to rest key players next week and the Sharks have a good shot at a finals berth.
Brisbane didn’t come away too badly either, continuing their late season surge with some really powerful passages of play and only conceding eight points by the final siren. Anthony Milford had his best game in years against the Warriors last week, and while he didn’t quite match that performance for his 150th milestone at Brisbane, the memory of that barnstorming appearance spilled over here and inspired several moments of brilliance with Albert Kelly in the halves – bolstered by what will surely come to be seen as a pivotal night for Tesi Niu too.
Payne Haas summoned a big pack to prevent Jack Williams making any metres on the first carry, but the Sharks didn’t have to wait long for field position, since Jake Turpin was pinged for a dangerous tackle on Briton Nikora on the very next play. Cronulla resumed their opening set forty metres up the park, Luke Metcalf took his first hit and Aaron Woods and Toby Rudolf drove it up the middle, before Will Kennedy dummied and almost sliced through on the left.
After an augmented opening set, the Sharkies got a repeat set, on the back of Metcalf’s first kick, which Corey Oates fumbled out on the right wing. Metcalf was all over this first passage of play, glimpsing and almost breaking through a space on the left edge, before the hosts shifted it rapidly back to the other side of the park, and then out to the left once again. This was elastic football, and equally good defence from the Broncos, who nevertheless conceded even more field position late in the tackle count when Turpin found himself offside in the ten.
With so much pressure it was almost inevitable that Sione Katoa would cross over on the wing, although this was closer than initially appeared, as the replay showed the Cronulla no. 2 only just keeping his boot off the sideline as Oates tried to careen him into touch, while managing to get the Steeden down just as close to the chalk as well. There was only a blade of grass in it, but the Sharkies prevailed, thanks in part to the stellar cut-out assist from Kennedy, even if Braydon Trindall missed the kick to keep them just under a point per minute.
The Broncos had made 29 tackles as the Sharkies stuck into the restart, while the hosts hadn’t made one, flowing off a defence-free opening to the match as they worked their way up the middle. Jesse Ramien took it out to the right wing midway through the count, where he bumped off a couple of tackles, and Metcalf delivered another high kick, but this time Oates took it, and the Broncos finally got their first touch of the footy seven minutes into the game.
Turpin quickly made up for the error that started it all, bursting into space and almost putting Tesi Niu across in the left corner, while galvanising Brisbane as a whole into the speed and self-belief needed for them to score on the opposite side of the park. Metcalf might have cleaned up his fellow fullback, but Albert Kelly outdid him with the kicks, chipping it to the left wing where Mawene Hiroti pushed it up in the air for Xaxier Coates to slam down just before the dead ball line. Like Trindall, though, Herbie Farnworth also missed the conversion.
Still, this was an incredibly dramatic turnaround – the Broncos had conceded seven minutes of possession and the opening try, only to score on their very first touch of the footy. This was the only way they could have stolen the momentum back from the Sharkies, and possibly the only way Turpin could have made up for his opening error, so it turned what initially looked set to be a relatively one-sided game into one of the closer contests of Round 24. Their restart was terrific too, culminating with a spiralling Milford bomb that Ramien failed to collect clean.
All of a sudden, it looked like we might be in for another fast try, as Farnworth scooped up the Steeden, and shifted it through Tom Flegler to Milf, who got a second grubber away that Ramien had to slam in and knock dead from fifteen metres out. Brisbane had the first dropout, and were inside the ten by midway through the count, only for Milford to undo all this vision with a forward pass to Alex Glenn. Cronulla treated the next set as a steadier, taking it hard and fast up the middle, through the big men, although the kick didn’t end up challenging Niu.
Haas did one better on the next set, busting through both Cronulla frontrowers to run as far as both of them combined on the last set, upping the stakes even as Kennedy collected a shallow Niu grubber at the end of it all. Kelly was back on the Sharkies’ line two tackles into the next set, clearing up space for Haas to almost break through the big men right on the chalk, before Kelly tried to run it on the last, and ended up held in the tackle for a turnover.
By this stage, Brisbane were showing more determination, inducing Metcalf to kick on the third, from deep within his own territory, in an effort to reset the balance of field position. Selwyn Cobbo made his mark on the next set with a tough run to bring the ball back over the halfway line, and Oates followed with another strong carry, before Cobbo lost it up the right edge as he was preparing to offload through Hiroti and Metcalf. Even so, there was an intensity to the way that Brisbane were moving up the middle that suggested a try was near.
As a result, Cronulla had to do something special with this next scrum feed. They shifted right early in the count, feeding it out to Nikora, but the play turned out to be premature, since Briton didn’t have time to find his feet or flick it back inside before Farnworth rallied a pack to drag him into touch. This felt like a potential tipping-point, as Brisbane started at the Cronulla forty, and continued to carve up the middle third of the park, as Haas once again drew in a swathe of defenders on the line, clearing up space for a big crash play from Flegler.
Luckily for Cronulla, there were still enough big men in place to just hold him up, although Milford secured his second dropout with a well-weighted chip that Katoa was never going to bring back into the field of play. Despite taking seven minutes to touch the footy, Brisbane now had over 50% of possession, and took the lead with another rapid try on the left side of the park – this time from Niu, who took a superb double-pump from Milford, pivoted off the left boot, and curved around behind the uprights to set up Farnworth for the first conversion.
Meanwhile Woodsy came off the park for a regulation interchange, rather than an HIA interchange, despite the fact he was clutching his bleeding head after some friendly fire with Rudolf. The stats had changed dramatically for Cronulla, who were 5/5 in those opening seven minutes, but were 6/8 since, so completely had the Broncos managed to turn this game around. To beat Brisbane, they had to think like them, so they started to work it hard and fast up the middle on their following set, while Trindall targeted Oates in hope of a second fumble.
Instead, Oates came up with one of the best catches of the match, more than making up for his opening error by leaping a half metre above Nikora to take it on the full. Still, Katoa did well on tackle one of the next set, bending to his knees to take a Milford spiral on the full, and offloading for Ramien to bust through a couple of tackles for some strong metres up the left. This was the elastic opening that the Sharkies needed, and it seemed to spook Flegler, who came in for a punishing high tackle on Williams, who copped his second tough hit of the game.
No surprise that Flegler was sent to the bin, as the Sharkies got a double windfall here – a twelve-man opposition, to be sure, but also a flashback to Turpin’s opening high shot on Williams, which seemed to reset the game and (potentially) restore that early Cronulla drive. Siosifa Talakai was at the try line on the first play, and Ramien plunged over on the second, continuing his superb right side attack that started with Niu’s offload, but now on the basis of a rapid sweep to the right through the halves, ending with a superb cut-out pass from Trindall.
Despite that clinical buildup, this try was all Ramien, who dummied right, barged through a pack of Broncos, brought them to ground with him, and managed to maintain enough momentum on the turf to reach the Steeden above the maelstrom, keep the possession intact, and finally slam it down through a swathe of Brisbane jerseys. All in all, this was arguably the toughest Cronulla try of the year – as effective, in its own way, as Coates’ opening effort in totally resetting the momentum of the match, especially with Flegler in the sin bin.
Trindall added the extras, making it 10-10 with thirteen minutes to the siren, before the Broncos delivered some of their toughest defence on the restart to keep Cronulla in their own end until tackle four. Trindall booted it at the Brisbane forty, Niu took it on the full, and the Sharks returned the favour, containing even Haas, on his tenth run, as Kelly kicked from the same spot as Trindall, on his own forty. For the first time, the Broncos were starting to show the fatigue of those seven straight minutes of defence – so the Sharks had a good window.
This was the worst time, then, for Trindall to make an unforced error out of nowhere, flicking the footy forward to gift Brisbane seven tackles midway up the park, as Flegler reached the midway point of his stint in the bin as well. Yet the Broncos seemed indecisive here, uncertain about how to best break the Croulla red zone, and eventually remaining outside it, relying on the kick to get the footy over the twenty, where Katoa collected it easily to resume the attack.
With Trindall taking a beat to rise from a TC Robati tackle, and Cronulla not even breaking the Brisbane thirty, we had reached the dourest point of the first stanza, as both teams were now struggling for the play required to move beyond the 10-10 deadlock. It felt like one player had to step up and rally their men with a big individual effort – possibly fresh off the bench, as Moylan now came on to give Metcalf a rest. Instead, Rhys Kennedy became the next man to lose the ball, and Katoa delivered the massive one-man play needed to get Cronulla ahead.
This was about as emphatic as a one-man play gets too, as Katoa received the footy from Trindall at the right wing, on his own forty-metre line, and travelled fifty metres across field, dummying multiple times as he searched in vain for a Shark to take the ball from him, while eluding half the Brisbane pack, who seemed complacent that Sione was too far away from his team mates to amount to anything. In the end, though, the absence of follow-up runners worked to Katoa’s advantage, since it gave him space to make it all the way to the left wing.
Once he was there, Connor Tracey came up with one of the clutchier runs of the Sharkies’ season, coming up hard and fast on the left, and even then only just taking the low ball from his winger. He hit the ground just shy of the line, but relied in part on the Coates tackle to take him over the chalk. Trindall added the kick – and in one single run, and one individual play, Katoa had managed to regather and galvanise his team mates on the cusp of half time.
Brisbane, conversely, were exhausted, conceding a penalty kick right on the siren when Flegler marked his return from the bin with a hand in the ruck. Still, this was preceded by an egregious high shot from Ramien, who was put on report, and may face some difficulties with the judiciary this week. On top of that, Cronulla aren’t the most reliable team when it comes to maintaining a half time lead, so they had to work hard when Ramien followed his penalty by infringing the ruck on the very first play, in a kind of reversal of the opening of stanza one.
Turpin’s frustration was still a part of the palette here, as he berated himself for following this early field position with a pretty average kick over the right sideline. Cronulla didn’t waste any time applying pressure, as Aiden Tolman broke through the line on the next set, and Trindall secured a dropout with a well-weighted grubber that Niu was forced to clean up in goal. Tolman took the first carry of the dropout and Ramien had it in the twenty by tackle three, before Hiroti barged up to the line on the left edge where a big Brisbane pack tore in.
This was one of the best defensive plays of the season, as Coates landed beneath Hiroti, but still managed to get his hand under the Steeden long enough to keep it off the ground before Ethan Bullemor surged in to knock it free. Still, it didn’t take the Sharkies long to build on this surge, on the other side of the park, where Trindall took it at the ten and fed it to Nikora, who smashed through two defenders and offloaded it back for Braydon to fend off Flegler and twist through Niu, before converting his own try to propel Cronulla fourteen points in front.
Williams got the restart rolling with a big charge up the middle, tempting a strip from Robati that got the Sharks back up Brisbane’s end of the park with a full set ahead. They were at the twenty two tackles later, when Wilton channelled Williams’ run with some good metres up the left, before Brisbane conceded more field position with a Flegler offside. During the first stanza, Cronulla would have likely taken the two here, but they felt confident enough to tap and go now, meaning Brisbane had to work on breaking that confidence as soon as possible.
Flegler was the man for the job, taking out a frustrating night with a monster hit on Tracey, and dishevelling the Sharks enough for the subsequent sweep to the right wing to fail to find its mark in Katoa, who had space enough to score if he hadn’t lost the footy on the ground. The Broncos wasted no time in consolidating on their next set, as Haas set the foundation with big metres after contact, and Milford followed with an equally good effort, breaking through a Brailey tackle and shifting a sublime cut-out pass across for Niu to take on the chest.
Niu gathered all the strength and conviction of this last passage up the middle into one final burst, twisting and spinning through Katoa, who went from missing an easy try up the other end of the park to letting one through here. Farnworth added the extras, and just like that the Broncos had narrowed the scoreline to eight with just under thirty minutes left on the clock. Yet this would be the final scoreline as well, as both teams struggled to add to their tally, but failed to make the most of the opportunities that emerged over the final half hour.
That’s not to say that Brisbane failed to make more metres, since Farnworth cut a sharp path to the left edge a moment later, only for Kelly to thwart his momentum with a shallow kick to the other side of the park. Cobbo tried to compensate with a second boot, but directed it too deep this time, gifting Cronulla seven tackles for their next carry. Even better for the home team, Tolman popped out a decent offload midway through and the Sharkies got another of the restarts that had damaged Brisbane in the first stanza, thanks to an offside from Flegler.
They were at the ten with two tackles to go, and swept it left, where Wilton was held up by a strong pack and yet still managed to continue the passing out through Moylan. Still, Brisbane stayed strong here, and came up with an even clutchier defensive sequence on the other wing, where Ramien executed a very late offload for Trindall to almost assist Katoa in the corner. Sione was determined to get the best of Oates again, ducking low and coming in hard, but Corey was one better, bundling him into touch just after he got the football onto the turf.
The Sharks responded with one of the stranger challenges of the season, in an effort to prove that Danny Levi had played at a Trindall kick in backplay. The footage did indeed show the Brisbane hooker getting boot to ball, and yet the challenge was still denied, since the next part of the play confirmed that Katoa had gone into touch. This was perhaps the most bizarre use of the challenge since Brisbane lost to the Roosters, although they didn’t get much of a chance to benefit from being on the other side of it here, thanks to an early Milford fumble.
This was arguably a tough call, since Moylan was still wrapped around Milford’s legs when he tried to play the ball, but the Bronocs didn’t suffer from it, as Katoa got another disappointment on the wing, when Kennedy came to ground, and hesitated just a little too long before shooting out the offload, which careened over the sideline as Brendan Piakura came on off the bench for his long-awaited NRL debut. He was the 36th Brisbane player to hit the park this year – the most men any team has deployed since the Cronulla outfit of 2014.
Oates did well under Trindall’s next bomb, helping to steer the Broncos into a more satisfactory set, even if Ramien came in for a marginal tackle to prevent Farnworth making any more metres up the left. Milford did get to the kick, though, while Farnworth got his own back on Ramien late in the subsequent set, with a tackle that prevented Cronulla from making it to the Brisbane twenty. Kelly consolidated further with a great offload to Niu, who broke through the line, kicked at speed at the forty, and set up Cobbo for another barnstorming run.
He got to the footy first, but overtook himself in the process, knocking it dead in goal to give the Sharks a seven tackle set right when they seemed destined to concede a try or dropout. This was one of the more important turning-points in the scoreless final quarter, permitting Cronulla to resume their escalating dominance and reach the twenty, where Niakura responded with his biggest shot so far – and his latest. In fact, so late did he reach Trindall that he was immediately put on report and sent to the bin, as Williams came on for his no. 7.
For the second time in the game the Broncos were down to twelve men, although the Sharkies wouldn’t manage to capitalise this time around. Moylan became the next player to almost crash over, collecting a beautiful wide ball from Trindall and almost breaking through on the left, where Levi came up with one of the best one-man defensive efforts to help knock the footy free. After struggling for field position over the last ten minutes, the Broncos got a much-needed restart now, with Wilton offside, and found good space for Coates up the right.
Coates sent it off the right boot at speed, and curved in and out of touch to return to it, forcing Kennedy to pop it dead for what could have been a critical set for the Broncos if Bullemor hadn’t knocked on what would have been their first tackle in the Cronulla twenty since the break. Woodsy rallied the troops by standing in the play for a good couple of seconds midway through the next count, and Trindall consolidated further with a deep bomb, although Coates was up to the challenge once again, even if he did have to take it right on the Brisbane chalk.
Once again, too, Ramien shut down Farnworth on the left edge, before Milford went bomb-for-bomb to produce one of the more chaotic sequences under the high ball since the sheds. Coates responded with a monster chase, overtaking most of the Sharks to get a hand to it, before Tracey wrapped it into his chest, and promptly lost it as Xavier refused to give up on the play. Even better for Brisbane, Moylan was pinged for holding back, although he made up for it with the most desperate defence so far when the Broncos swung left four tackles later.
For a moment, it looked like the visitors had made up for that aborted Bullemor play, and got Cobbo his try after all, thanks to a side-to-side sweep from the left wing out to the right. Cobbo ended up with it, and got on the outside of both Hiroti and Tracey – not quite discarding them, but tumbling through them to land in the corner with Moylan as last line of defence. It wasn’t enough for the ex-Panther to bump Cobbo into touch now – he had to get his hand under the footy, and that’s just what he managed to do, holding on hard and fast.
Another couple of seconds and Cobbo might have been able to get the Steeden free, but Moylan timed it perfectly so his quarry’s head hit the sideline before the try was scored. Still, the Broncos had one more promising passage, as their debut front-rower returned to the park and Bullemor got some joy by collecting a Milford offload and tempting Talakai into a ruck error. Kelly brought it all together with a deft grubber that Hiroti scooped up in goal, where he managed to elude Kelly’s own chase, but wasn’t able to get past a damaging run from Levi.
Brisbane now had the last dropout of the game, and had to score on this set if they were going to have any chance of restoring the eight-point deficit. They were at the ten by play two, and Milford was on the line a play later, before Tracey and Moylan showed Piakura that they could tackle too, out on the right. Everything came down to Milford’s kick, which Oates caught on the full, only to spill as soon as Katoa brought him to ground – the last word in this battle of the wingers, but not, as it turned out, Brisbane’s last word, or Talakai’s last frustrating play.
Early in the next (and possibly the last) Cronulla set, Milford executed a David-and-Goliath effort with an individual strip on Talakai, giving his men one last chance to complicate the Sharkies’ finals hopes. This time Milf booted it to the right, where Coates leaped up in goal, and got both hands to the footy, but was unable to quite rein it in. All that Cronulla had to do was hold on now, with less than a minute on the clock, and they drove it surprisingly hard up field, as if determined to get as far away from Brisbane position and possession as they could.
Trindall tried to add a one-point field goal to cap it all off, and while he missed the posts, the gesture was a sign of confidence in itself. They’re on the very cusp of the finals, so next week’s game against Melbourne will be critical, especially since the purple army are likely to be resting some of their key players. On the other side of the Steeden, the Broncos also have a lot to feel proud of over the last few weeks, which have consisted of wins or close losses, so they’ll be pumped to continue their late season momentum when they take on the Knights.
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