ROUND 2: Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks v. Parramatta Eels (PointsBet Stadium, 19/3/21, 18-16)

It was hard to believe that we’d see an ending in Round 2 that was an exciting as the Rabbitohs-Storm golden point melodrama, but Cronulla and Parra delivered when they met beneath the wires at Shark Park for the Johnny Mannah Cup. Both teams had close finishes in Round 1, and while the Sharks lost, Nicho Hynes seemed on the cusp of a watershed game, with 107 metres against Canberra, more than any Cronulla forward. On the other side of the Steeden, the Eels needed an emphatic win after only just getting the points over Gold Coast.

The Sharks dominated the first forty, starting with a superb try from Ronald Mulitalo, who wouldn’t return from the break after sustaining a head clash while shutting down a Bailey Simonsson charge on the wing. For a moment, it looked like Cronulla had capped off that opening stanza with their best goal line defence of the year, as they thwarted Parra in three sets within the ten, five minutes before the break. Yet that just made it all the more dramatic when Mitch Moses set up a dazzling spine try on the very cusp of half time.

This propelled the Eels into another burst of field position at the start of the third quarter, and ended up getting them the lead for the first time when Mahoney crashed over at the 62nd minute. Yet the Sharks had an upset play of their own to end the back forty, when Teig Wilton smashed over on the last play of the last set of the night, and Hynes followed three botched conversions – the only blemish in an otherwise stellar game – by booting through the match-winner to make his name in Cronulla mythology and cement his arrival in the halfback jersey. 

Junior Paulo took the first run of the afternoon, and the Sharks crowded in to prevent Parra crossing the halfway line, as Mitch Moses booted his first kick just over his own forty. Conversely, Dale Finucane was in Eels territory by tackle four, while a Hynes kick and Will Kennedy chase forced the visitors to work it back from their own line. Luckily, Clint Gutherson was confident with the catch, but even then the blue and gold struggled to make field position, with Moses now kicking from inside his own thirty as Cronulla swarmed his men.

Finucane continued to work hard on the next set, dragging Oregon Kaufusi and Reed Mahoney fifteen metres, while Hynes repeated his kick to the ten, but targeted Waqa Blake this time, before Briton Nikora supplied the chase. For a third straight set, Parramatta were struggling to make metres, only clearing their twenty by tackle three, as Moses once more booted it inside the forty. Kennedy took it clean, and almost broke past Will Penisini up the left edge, getting Teig Wilton space to cross into Eels territory by the second play.

Yet the Eels now got their first break, as Finucane proved why he should run the footy rather than opting for second phase play, with a messy offload that only grazed Hynes’ fingertips. Parra had gone from no real position to a full set in the opposition half, while Gutho showed Finucane how it was done with a deft offload on the ground out to Dylan Brown. The visitors didn’t experiment much on the wing, instead taking it hard and fast up the centre, and relying on a Moses chip that very nearly paid dividends on the right side of the posts.

Ronaldo Mulitalo missed it, the footy ricocheted off Matt Moylan’s head, and Kaufusi came very close to a clean putdown, only to fumble it as he landed on it, right on the chalk, with Kennedy on his back. It was a concise image of the close game that would follow, as the Sharks went from almost conceding the first try to receiving the first scrum feed, ten metres out from their line. Blayke Brailey immediately got them rolling with a strong break down the middle, fuelling Connor Tracey into more metres up the left edge, until Moses finally got in his way.

By the end of the set, Parra were in danger of sinking back into their opening slump, thanks to another inspired Hynes kick – this time a low short effort that Gutho had to dive on right in the corner, where he was unable to secure it quick enough to make his way back over the ten metre line. Still, the Eels broke the rhythm midway through, when RCG delivered a tough enough charge to tempt a Toby Rudolf flop, before Moses executed his second kick in the opposition half, and came up with an equally precise trajectory, again to the right corner.

Mulitalo collected it, and Bailey Simonsson cleaned him up just as quickly, but not without conceding a dangerous tackle to save the Sharks a dropout, much as Kaufusi’s messy putdown had saved them a try. Still, the Eels got the ball back soon enough, and Simonsson actually took a decent kick himself to that same right corner, only for a Penisini penalty, for a hand in the ruck, to set up Mulitalo to bring this whole sequence to an end for the first try of the game, while Simonsson had his second frustrating moment in as many minutes.

Hynes got the play rolling with a sweep out through Kennedy and Tracey, as Bailey dove at the footy to prevent it reaching the wing, but couldn’t quite make contact. Mulitalo ended up with it, and barged straight into Gutho, who managed to bring him to ground, but couldn’t prevent him from rising to his feet and storming over the chalk without a Shark in sight. This was such a dominant display from Mulitalo, proof of Cronulla’s ability to barrel Parra despite the ostensible obstacles, that it may well have been the critical play for their eventual victory.

It certainly eclipsed Hynes’ missed conversion, which he booted straight into a dangerous breeze that was whirling over Kogarah, especially since Braden Hamlin-Uele mirrored Mulitalo’s second shot by disposing of Mahoney and busting straight through Kaufusi and RCG for the best single run up the middle all game. Moylan lost the ball a play later, but this was still dangerous momentum from the Sharkies, so Parra had to use their next set to steady the ship, as Mahoney got some joy by shaping a clutch offload out to Gutho late in the count.

Seeing these two key playmakers bounce back from letting Mulitalo and Hamlin-Uele through was a good motivator for Parra, and yet the rest of the spine didn’t follow suit, as Dylan Brown got Cronulla out of their own end by holding down Kennedy when he took the kick right on his line. Moylan split two defenders and got a surprisingly casual offload away to Tracey up the left, but Kennedy wasn’t as fortunate on the other side of the park, where he shaped for a second phase assist to Sione Katoa but lost the footy for Opacic to clean up in the corner.

Now it was Parra’s turn to get a penalty in their own end, as Brailey was pinged for a slow peel, and Moses calmly saved an awkward bouncer from Mahoney, so it was frustrating when Shaun Lane lost a short one from Dylan Brown in the face of some more bone-rattling defence from the hosts. Moses was now limping in backplay, as Opacic came in for a tough hit on Nikora to rattle the footy free, and get some revenge for the Lane cough-up, before copping some equally strong contact from Katoa, and managing to maintain possession as he did so.

Moses seemed better by the time he chipped a deft one through Kennedy on the left, but Hynes was there to back up the backline, precluding any chance of a dropout, and shooting out his widest pass so far on the fourth, before taking control again and ferrying it back to the left side of the field. By the time he took the kick on the last, he’d had his biggest involvement in a set so far, giving his men time to form a staunch defensive line to keep Parra in their own thirty for the first three tackles, until Mulitalo found himself offside within the ten.

This was the chance that Parramatta needed, and Makahesi Makatoa got them rolling with a strong opening carry, before Paulo added an offload to Mahoney, and Makatoa took the third hit-up too. Gutho and Opacic tried to enterprise on the left edge, Dylan Brown took on the line, and Moses’ leg came back to haunt him with an overlong kick that initially seemed to guarantee a seven tackle set, only to ricochet off a Cronulla player for an unexpected dropout. It was the luckiest moment of the game, so it was critical the blue and gold capitalise now.

Again, Makatoa took the first hit-up, as if determined to use this set to correct and consolidate the last one, while Paulo delivered another offload, this time to Dylan Brown. Sensing Makatoa was peaking, Mahoney tried to send him through the line with a short ball in front of the posts, before Moses condensed this escalating right side attention with a wide ball for Simonsson to leap over on the wing. Mulitalo was bleeding from the face when he rose from the tackle, and it was well-earned, since he’d (just) forced the ex-Raider onto the sideline.

Even if the Eels had been thwarted once again, you couldn’t deny the dexterity of Moses’ wide ball, suggesting their next try might come off his passing game as much as his running or kicking game. In the meantime, Brailey got his men six again off a ruck infringement from Isaiah Papali’i, as Aiden Tolman entered the Eels’ twenty for the first time, and Hynes made the most of this new field position with a superb chip-and-chase to trap Gutho in goal on the left edge of the field. After two sets on their own line, the Sharkies now had a dropput.

With the wind behind it, Gutho’s kick travelled 65 metres, but Siosifa Talakai was well within Parramatta territory by the time he finished the first carry. Moylan built on an extreme wide ball from Brailey to step around a couple of defenders and almost make it through on the left edge, before Katoa translated all that fluidity into an even more sinuous passage on the right wing, where he took a short ball from Jesse Ramien, after Kennedy came in as extra man, to score untouched – a stunning set piece that put Cronulla at eight after Hynes missed the kick.

These botched conversions were the only blemish on Hynes’ form so far, although he’d make up for them in the most spectacular manner in the dying seconds of the game. Meanwhile, Katoa was pumped from scoring in his fiftieth NRL appearance, and Cameron McInnes was sitting on the bench, waiting to play his first game in almost 600 days. Brailey was restless for metres on the restart, Katoa marched it up the middle, and Hynes elasticised with a pair of good passes on the left edge, but on the whole Parra did well to hold them up Cronulla here.

The best part of the set was Hynes’ kick, which swirled dangerously in the breeze before Blake somehow reined in a bounce that was veering back towards the oncoming Cronulla chase, deep in the right corner. As if aware that the Eels couldn’t afford a second clutch place twice in the same set, Moses took advantage of the breeze at his back to boot it early, from inside his own forty, and got some decent distance, as well as good enough bounce for Opacic to scoop it up in the face of Kennedy and Katoa – only to lose it as he ricocheted off the turf.

Yet in one of the weird twists of fate that percolated across this game, Andrew Fifita inexplicably fumbled an easy pass from Brailey midway through the set. Ray Stone had a half-break, Nathan Brown offloaded for a Gutho break fifteen metres out, and the Eels got six again inside the Cronulla ten, thanks to a ruck error from Nikora. This was the chance they needed, and while Stone started with a strong crash play, the set as a whole was uninspired, culminating with Dylan Brown unable to find an offload or find the chalk a metre out.

Even then, the Eels got another chance, as the Sharks played at Mahoney’s kick on the last, and with a second straight set in the ten they absolutely had to score here. Just when things were fragmenting on the left, and Lane finished a left sweep with a pass into Katoa, the half-centurion was deemed to have played at it, and the visitors got one more burst of field position. Moses searched for options on the first and had to content himself with a floater out to Opacic, before Gutho put down the footy on the next play. Cronulla had survived.

Along with the sheer dexterity of Mulitalo’s try, this had the potential to be the key turning-point of the first forty, since with three straight sets in the ten and no points to show for it, the Eels took a serious dent in self-belief that might well plague them for the rest of the game. On the other side of the Steeden, the Sharks were pumped by their best goal-line defence this year (even if Parra didn’t ultimately throw all that much at them), so the blue and gold only had one more chance, and one more set, to restore and reassert their football flow.

Cometh the hour cometh the man, as Moses now made the best single kick of the game – a chip over Tolman – while his spine buddies responded with the two most mercurial handles of the game. Gutho arrived at the bounce, and shaped more than passed (or tapped) the footy on to Dylan Brown, who never quite had secure possession as he raised it over his head and lobbed it volleyball-style back to his halfback. Moses translated the arc of Brown’s pass into a sublime curve round the defence to ground the Steeden in one of the best tries of the year.

Gutho also gave Hynes an object lesson in conversions, booting it through without a second thought to bring us to a two-point game, 8-6, as the siren rang out. Moses actually thought it should be 8-8, and was clamouring for a penalty try after Ramien tumbled over his legs on the line. At this moment, you could be forgiven for mistaking Jesse’s contact as mere messiness, but later on it would become harder to deny that the Sharks were deliberately targeting Moses’ injured leg. Despite the two-point deficit, this was a stunning Parra moment.

That all made for an intriguing prospect over the back half. Cronulla had dominated the opening stanza, and survived three straight sets in their own ten, but the Eels’ spine had bounced back with arguably their best single sequence of the year so far. The Sharks had the breeze at their backs when they returned to the park, as Finucane took his tenth run of the night, and Fifita managed a deft offload for Nikora. Even so, Hynes had to boot it from his own forty, while Nathan Brown broke the halfway line four tackles into Parramatta’s first set.

Talakai couldn’t follow Fifita with an offload early in the next set, and Ramien only just reined in a messy right sweep on tackle three. There was no doubt the Sharks had lost some composure in the wake of Moses’ try, especially since it had come right on the stroke of half time, not allowing them to rebuild energy right away. Worse, Mulitalo had been ruled out during the break, when he had failed an HIA on the back of defending Simonsson early in the first stanza. The good news was Teig Wilton had overcome a leg issue and was on the park.

This would turn out to be especially good news given the way the game ended, but for now the Sharks were focused on withstanding a Parra outfit that were back in their ten again. Gutho made it another dropout with a well-weighted grubber that Kennedy couldn’t quite secure behind the line, where he fumbled more than forced the footy into touch. Makatoa was becoming the go-to forward on repeat sets, and his charge set up Papali’i to reach the ten by tackle two, while history repeated itself when Ramien made a second effort on Gutho.

As at the end of the first half, the Eels now had three successive sets, albeit not all of them within the ten, even if they’d spend most of this time camped out on the Cronulla line. Makatoa tried to translate those sterling opening runs into a crash play on the left, and got his men a fourth set for their troubles, by catching Nikora offside within the ten. In yet another escalation, the Eels got a fifth restart, and then a penalty, with an early tackle from Wilton – so much field position that they were in danger of seriously caving if they didn’t score now.

For that reason, Gutho opted to take the two, just so his men would have something to show for all this acceleration, and yet this in itself was a kind of defeat, a concession that even with five successive sets the Eels couldn’t put down four or six points. McInnes couldn’t have chosen a better moment to make his first appearance on the footy field since September 2020, joining a Cronulla outfit determined to make sure that the Eels didn’t make good on their accumulated position on the penalty restart, as they had just before the halftime siren.

The first half of the set was pretty conventional, and Moses’ kick was messy, giving Tracey time to wait for it to slide over the sideline as the Sharks got themselves in place for their first attacking set in seven minutes. Opacic did well to shut down Ramien at the back of a silky sweep to the right edge, but Hynes was just as restless on the left, where only a Moses ankle tap prevented him from going all the way. Moylan did what he could with the kick, and Simonsson didn’t have much of a challenge to collect it on the sideline for a fresh Parra set.

Despite this anticlimactic ending, however, Hynes’ superb footwork lingered as a reminder that Cronulla weren’t going to let Parra get much headway, as the game reached a new level of volatility when Wilton came in for an egregious high shot on Moses – so violent and direct that you had to wonder whether he’d deliberately targeted the legs, especially after Ramien’s extra effort during the last try. He was put on report, Gutho booted through another two, and luckily Moses didn’t look too worse for wear, even if was wincing slightly as he walked it off.

For the first time of the night, the Eels were ahead at 10-8, as the big men got the restart rolling with a series of rapid runs, and Moses took the kick with Wilton in his face once again. There was no illegal contact this time, though, while Cronulla got a penalty of their own, and their first burst of position since the break, when RCG took the aggro of his last attacking run too far and conceded a slow peel in the process. For the first time in this second stanza, the Sharks were on the Parra line, where Hynes skipped across the ruck and fed it on to Brailey.

Unfortunately, Blayke had to take the tackle with McInnes in his way, but it didn’t dent the Sharkies’ momentum, as Hynes continued his sublime evening by driving the Steeden deep into the left corner and sending a pinpoint perfect pass out for Tracey to crash over. Moses tried to make it look like Wilton had impeded him, but he wasn’t going to win this contest with the Cronulla second-rower, as the replay confirmed the try, and the Sharks recovered their two-point lead once Hynes missed the sideline conversion, making it 0/3 with the boot.

Despite these kicking issues, there was no doubt that it had been a watershed game for Hynes in the halves, where his restless playmaking and mercurial footwork had lifted the team to a new energy, culminating with this superb Tracey assist. Brailey made big metres up the middle on the restart, and Hynes booted it deep into the right corner, in what turned out to be an easy catch, but didn’t leave Gutho with anywhere to go, keeping the Eels in their twenty for the first half of the set, as the two Browns combined to make up the positional deficit.

Nathan started with a short ball to Dylan, who made seven metres after contact to get Moses in decent kicking position, while McInnes followed Brailey with a rousing run up the middle next time the Sharkies had ball in hand. Gutho got another easy collect, this time a bounce, and twenty metres further upfield, as the Eels started to slowly edge their way back towards the Cronulla line – and then suddenly escalated, as Lane broke through the defence, after only running for 34 metres, and popped it on for Mahoney to dance over a Rudolf ankle tap.

Just as important for morale, Lane wrong-footed Hynes, pivoting so rapidly off the left boot that the Umina local slipped to ground in his most ungainly moment of the night. The sudden change in direction also allowed Lane to get past Nikora, meaning that Mahoney pretty much had clear sailing by the time he took possession. Full credit to Dylan Brown, too, for the pass that set up Lane’s mad dash in the first place, which brought Parra to a four point lead when Gutho booted through another deft conversion, with fifteen minutes until the final siren.

If Hynes had made the kicks, the Sharks would still be two points ahead, but given his conversion record it felt paramount that the hosts put down a pair of tries to secure themselves the chocolates. They got their next shot when Papali’i made brutal contact with Kennedy in the air, and while Parra sent it upstairs, the replay supported the onfield decision, showing that Papali’i had initially shaped to wrap his arms around the footy (the reason the Eels went for a challenge) but had just as clearly shifted to a tackle on the Sharkies’ fullback.

This could have been a momentum-changer for Cronulla, but the set fizzled in the later tackles, culminating with a Hynes kick that was devoid of depth, giving Blake space to recoup the lost field position with one of his best runs of the night. Yet the hosts got another chance when Nathan Brown swung an arm into McInnes’ head, as Hynes got back into first gear, summoning a stunning half-break to bring his men within the ten, where Hamlin-Uele slammed into Gutho and reached out his arm for a David-and-Goliath clash where David won.

He lost the footy at the very last minute, but it didn’t take the Sharks long to get it back, as Brown lost it backwards on tackle three, just as Parra were reaching the red zone, and Katoa scooped it up to start returning into blue and gold territory. Talakai delivered some superb footwork to get past Kaufusi and almost trample through Lane, and while the Eels survived, they were starting to lose the balance of field position, steeling themselves to spend most of this set in their thirty until McInnes returned the penalty with a high one on Blake.

The symmetry of McInnes’ error should have cemented this as a key turning-point for Parra, and sure enough Moses followed Gutho by defying Hamlin-Uele right on the line, where he extended the full length of his frame through the massive forward to plant the Steeden down. Yet the potential assist from Mahoney turned out to be forward, as the match-winning try went begging, and Ramien and Katoa elasticised out on the right edge. Hynes set up Rudolf to parlay that energy into a charge over Mahoney, before shifting the play left on the last.

We now got another David-on-Goliath clash, as Talakai received the ball, busted through the defence and would have scored the match-winning try if not for a courageous effort from Penisini, who put his whole body on the line to stop the squat second-rower in his tracks. With less than five minutes, both sides had almost-tries, so it was clear that the next team to score was going to win it (or at least take it to golden point). You sensed that the Sharks had to rely on Hynes, who could cement this as a baptism of fire if he played a role at the death.

He came close at the end of the next Cronulla set, with a superb run deep into the line and an oblique ball back to Mahoney – just a little too oblique, as it turned out, since Mahoney was able to intercept it at the last second. Talakai was gang tackled early in the next Sharkies’ set, as if Parra were determined to crush even the residual energy of his near-try, but that aggro overtook them a play later when Stone was pinged for a dangerous tackle, gifting the boys from the beaches a full set within blue and gold territory with less than two minutes.

No surprise that Hynes was the pivot here, ferrying the footy out to Kennedy and then shifting it back to through Brailey to the left, where Hamlin-Uele took a steadying run, and Moylan stepped into the spotlight and delivered a superb short ball for Wilton to slam through Gutho, roll onto his head, and ground the Steeden directly behind his scalp. Hynes had run the decoy just for good measure, and had the biggest moment so far in Cronulla colours when he lined up the conversion, at 16 points apiece, as the siren rang out and the crowd went wild.

In a moment that is destined to live on in Sharks mythology, Hynes struck it straight and true, sending the Steeden through the posts, towards the wires, and into the Cronulla history books. He only had a moment to reach up his hands to bask in the exhilaration of the ground before he was swamped by team mates, buried in a strong enough footy flow to propel them into next week’s local clash with the Dragons. It was every bit as eventful as the Storm’s field goal win – last set, last play – and a critical moment as Hynes evolves into the halfback jersey.

About Billy Stevenson (732 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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