ROUND 7: Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks v. Sydney Roosters (PointsBet Stadium, 14/4/23, 22-12)
It was the 100th meeting between the Sharks and Roosters when they rocked up to PointsBet on Friday night, with both teams coming off painful losses – Cronulla to a shock resurgence from New Zealand before the bye, and the Tricolours with a twenty-point capitulation to the Storm over Easter. Still, the Chooks were buoyed up by the return of James Tedesco post-concussion protocols, and the Sharkies by the news of Nicho Hynes extending to 2029, along with the more recent announcement, that very day, that Will Kennedy was staying until 2025.
Add to that the fact that Tedesco was still waiting to score his debut try for the season and the stage was set for a blockbuster. In another era, the Roosters would have been dominant here, but instead Cronulla exuded the confidence of Sydney City at their most recent peak a couple of years ago, only conceding a two-point lead once, and from there keeping the visitors scoreless for the final fifty minutes of the game, while capitalizing on a particularly spotty night for Brandon Smith, who was sent to the bin in the final ten, along with Victor Radley.
Teddy had his first touch on tackle five, dummying and taking on the line to ensure that Sam Walker had good position for his first kick, which he sent over the sideline to force Cronulla to work it deep out of their own end. Nevertheless, the hosts didn’t do too badly with the advance, as Nicho Hynes booted it from his forty, and Tedesco contained his first high ball, before the Roosters started marching it up the park once again. Again Walker took the kick, but angled it high, and Ronald Mulitalo didn’t hesitate this time, delivering a good catch.
A play later, Radley was off at marker, gifting the Sharkies the first field position of the evening, only for Braden Hamlin-Uele to make one of the worst play-the-balls of the season early in the count. Sydney had the scrum, and were into enemy territory on tackle one, thanks to a driving run from Joseph Suaalii, while Jared Waerea-Hargreaves withstood some heavy contact to pop the first offload of the night out to his captain, before the Chooks got the first ruck error of the night too, from Briton Nikora, for a full set inside the Cronulla red zone.
Luke Keary ended with a chip out to the right edge, where Joey Manu reached out his full wingspan to tap it back, and Nat Butcher came up with it. He would have scored too, if not for a roiling, scrambing goal line effort from the Sharkies, who got a bump up the park a minute later when Butcher took out his residual frustration with some crowding early in the count. True to the back-and-forth momentum of the last few minutes, however, Hynes popped it forward to Nikora, and so the Roosters packed their second scrum of the night.
The Chooks were due for the next error, so when Radley bobbled and reined in the ball it felt like they’d ruptured the rhythm of the last couple of sets, even if Mulitalo won the aerial battle at the back end of the kick. He had no chance of a return, though, ushering in Cronulla’s biggest struggle for position so far, as Hynes tried to reset things with an early kick from deep inside his thirty. Walker ended the following count with a bomb that grazed Manu’s finger, and then came in early on Hynes a second after, for the hosts’ third penalty of the game.
From working it off their own chalk a set ago, the Sharkies were now at the brink of the ten by tackle two, thanks to a hard line from Nikora. They attempted their first left sweep a play later, and returned that way on the last, as Hynes chipped deep into the wing, before Sydney sent up a Captain’s Challenge to disprove a supposed Jaxson Paulo knock-on in the air. The Bunker got it right, despite mistaking Mulitalo for Sione Katoa, and yet several questionable dummy half passes from the Tricolors now culminated with a Brandon Smith forward ball.
The game intensified a moment later when a Walker strip led to a quick tap, and the Sharkies found themselves in the ten with over half their tackle count remaining. For the first time, the Chooks had to really scramble, although all this speed quickly decelerated when play paused on the penultimate tackle for Nikora, who copped a hip drop from Nat Butcher, who was put on report and promptly sent to the bin, as the PointsBet crowd roared out in approval. Meanwhile, Hynes booted through the two from in front, and Cronulla were on the board.
Luckily, Nikora was back on his feet, and raring for action by the time his men embarked on the repeat set, which they started with a rapid shift to the left, where Hamlin-Uele took a steadying tackle, and Blayke Brailey tried to find a linebreak assist. Nevertheless, the Roosters survived, and Kennedy contained the next kick, as a more expansive end-to-end rhythm started to emerge, only to be abruptly absorbed into a Cronulla challenge to prove that Walker had raked the Steeden from Kennedy with both Manu and Cheese in the tackle.
It was a brilliant challenge, further elasticising the Sharkies’ attack as they moved it from side to side, searching for a chink in the Tricoloured armour. Siosifa Talakai couldn’t make it though Smith and JWH out on the left, in what was the biggest single charge of the set, but even so they got another stint in the ten, as the second quarter arrived, thanks to a Manu offside. Sydney’s second fullback made up for his error with a monster tackle on Hynes, forcing him to cough it up, but Matt Moylan was there to scoop it up and play right to the whistle.
On the chance it might have been lost cleanly backwards, he took advantage of the Sydney defence that had cleared around Manu’s shot, and scooted through for his first try of the season, with Teddy barely getting fingertips to him as he crashed over beside the left padding. Hynes added the extras, making it eight unanswered points, and booted it hard and high at the end of the restart, for what would have been another position challenge for the Chooks, Daniel Tupou’s good take notwithstanding, only for Jesse Ramien to concede some crowding.
It was Sydney City’s first penalty of the night, galvanising Cheese into his best footwork of the game so far – a shimmy, dummy, and 360-degree rotation – that in turn laid the platform for a beautiful Radley-Keary combo out to the left, where the best ball of the game from the veteran five-eighth wrong-footed Hynes enough for Egan Butcher to slice through the line and mirror Moylan with a try beside the left posts. The Sharkies might have scored with the other Butcher off the park, but the Roosters had delivered immediately off their first penalty.
Walker added the extras just as Butcher was coming back from the bin, returning us to a two-point game. Teddy executed his best return of the night a minute later, making twenty-five metres off a skidding, searching charge, while the big men continued to make a mammoth effort up the middle. For a moment, it looked like the fatigue might have got to Lindsay Collins, who lost the footy on this same set, but a second successful Sydney challenge proved this was a Cameron McInnes strip, as workhorse JWH headed off for a well-earned rest.
Matt Lodge took his place, and slightly overran his first combo with Radley, resulting in a hospital pass that saw him cough it up into a three-man Cronulla pack. Either the Chooks weren’t prepared to risk a third challenge, or to risk it on Lodge, but either way his braying insistence he’d been hard done by went unanswered, as the Sharkies got back on the attack, and glimpsed a gap up the right edge midway through the count. Sydney closed it, but it cost Katoa an awkward landing, giving the visitors thirty seconds to reset their defensive line.
Hynes hoisted it high on the last, and while Mulitalo got hands to it, he made contact with the sideline first, and launched it into Teddy’s chest anyway. Add to that a Jack Williams offside, and the Roosters had the rhythm behind them, with Naufahu Whyte driving the first tackle into the ten for his fourth appearance of the season, Radley following with a no-nonsense foray into the defence, and Smith following the inspired run that had set up Butcher’s try with an even better dummy half charge, this time to reach the left edge of the try line himself.
The replay showed that Royce Hunt had almost done the job in defence, since Cheese had only grazed the outermost blade of chalked grass, but that just made his strength and vision feel all the more emphatic, as the Chooks took the lead for the first time tonight – first by two, and then by four, as Walker slotted through what would also be their last points of the game. From here, Cronulla would proceed to pile on fourteen unanswered points, but for the moment Sydney felt like they were about to take control, especially with Teddy at the helm.
Egan Butcher and Keary absolutely swamped Kennedy on his next return, before Paulo got himself in place to receive more than intercept a Teig Wilton post-linebreak pass – proof positive that the Roosters were now starting to absorb the energy that Cronulla had brought to the first part of the game. Without the ex-Rabbitoh’s vision this would have been a certain try, so it was a critical second chance for the Sharkies when Suaalii stuck a hand in the ruck early in their next count. No surprise, then, that they targeted the left edge early now.
Having exorcised the ghost of the Wilton-Paulo moment in this way, they started to expand, and sweep from side to side again, receiving a fresh set in the ten off a Nat Butcher ruck error, and then another restart when Radley was out of position at marker. This was the last great accumulation of position during the first forty, two minutes out from the break, as the Chooks settled into their most heroic goal line defence of the match, and Brailey tried to mimic Cheese’s mad dash from dummy half, tempting six again from the ex-Storm icon himself.
When it all ended with an error from Wilton, the man whose break and error had set it all up, the Roosters could congratulate themselves on a masterpiece of goal line defence – a sterling end to the first forty, in which wave after wave of Cronulla aggression had failed to pierce the Sydney City line. With a Williams cough-up midway through the first set after half time, the Chooks had a chance to translate this defensive brilliance back into attack, but the Sharkies stayed staunch in defence too, as Brailey delivered sterling hits on tackles one, two and five.
It all came down to a 5-on-5 battle for the high ball, with Mulitalo defying one of the safest pair of hands in the game to wrest the footy from Manu’s grasp and secure his men their first complete set since the break. Talakai continued the momentum with a beautifully angled grubber on the last, and while it was weighted just a little too heavily for Mulitalo to plant it down, the big winger cemented this as his strongest period of the night by following his Manu contest by intercepting a Walker ball, and levelling the score with a try four tackles later.
This was the key consolidator of the game for the Sharkies – and not simply because it marked such a powerful evolution in Mulitalo’s game. Moylan started it all out on the right, drifting across towards the wing before flinging it back in for Nikora to shift direction back to the other edge with one of the best crossfield runs of the evening. From there, he sent it on to Kennedy, who made it two misses for Manu, before shifting it across for Talakai to follow his near-assist for Mulitalo with a successful assist, but this time with the hands rather than with the boot.
All of these echoes – of Manu’s failed contest beneath the highball, of Talakai’s grubber kick, of Nikora’s earlier charges – would have been enough to make this a summative four-pointer for Cronulla. But Mulitalo also matched the clutchiest Roosters effort of the night too, keeping his boot even closer to the left sideline than Cheese had grazed the chalk for his putdown. From front on, it looked like he might have made contact, but the side-on perspective showed this was pure ballet, a mere blade of grass in it, in big Ronaldo’s best footwork of the year.
This try also made him equal second in 2023, with Maika Sivo and Dom Young (7), just behind Campbell Graham, Jamayne Isaako and the Hammer (8). With another putdown tonight, he could become the first Shark to score multiple tries in three successive games since Colin Best in 1999, an impressive enough stat to eclipse Hynes’ first miss of the night. The score was still levelled, then, at 12-12, although with this kind of display behind them it felt like Cronulla had to score next, as score they did, although not right away, due to a sudden string of errors.
First, Hunt hit the footy far too hard on play one of the restart, richocheting it forward in an excess of enthusiasm that seemed to temporarily quell the Sharkies’ energy, as a cough-up from Wade Graham and then a second effort from Thomas Hazelton gifted the Chooks some decent position to level the score. Egan Butcher was barging into Williams at the ten on tackle two, Tedesco shrugged off several waves of defenders a beat later, and Walker chipped to the left from ten out, before a Tupou tap-back produced a second kick from Egan Butcher.
This Butcher-bookended period came to an abrupt halt with some deft Moylan defence beneath the crossbar, although with this kind of acceleration behind them the Roosters had started to eclipse the impact of that superb Mulitalo crossover, especially with 11-1 tackles in the opposition twenty since the break, along with 17-7 in the opposition half. The Sharkies needed a penalty, and they got it when Manu, like Hunt before him, let the enthusiasm spill over, culminating a night that was equal parts messy and inspired, with high contact on Katoa.
Add a strip from Drew Hutchison, and a quick tap from Hynes, and the Sharkies had reabsorbed all the escalating volatility of the last few minutes as their own. In the blink of an eye, the Chooks were defending their goal line, in a flashback to those last desperate moments before the break, as Hynes shifted it out to Mulitalo, who couldn’t make it over on the left edge but managed to bring it back in field, and then flick it over to Williams, as Radley reached out his paws for what could have been an intercept, but came out as a knock-on.
Standing over all of this was the spectacle of Hynes’ tap and break, easily his most aggressive single play since coming to the Sharkies – a forward-like charge that was all conviction, all heart, and all leadership, good enough to sustain the troops when the scrum off Radley’s error ended with a Williams cough-up. With the Chooks packing it a beat later, it was as if Williams, rather than Victor, had coughed up Mulitalo’s ball, in what would have felt like another shift in momentum if not for the aura of Hynes, good enough to eclipse even an error of his own.
It came midway through the next set, with an overtly forward ball to Nikora, as the final quarter of the match arrived with the score still locked. A sense of desperation was starting to spill over the Cronulla side, despite their advantage, as if the trauma of the Warriors win was rising to confront them as a figment of the back twenty, but once again Mulitalo won the contest with Manu, who got first hands to Keary’s next crossfield chip, only to lose it back for the Sharkies winger to scoop it up, before Hynes set up Talakai for a steadier up the middle.
With Hynes bombing on the last, and Teddy withstanding a tough Cronulla chase to make a few heroic post-contacts, the game was starting to descend into slog mode, the biggest arm wrestle so far, as Keary shaped and failed to find a 40/20, but still forced Kennedy to take it within his ten, which is where Katoa remained on play two as well, with Mulitalo faling to break the twenty on the third, and Brailey finally expanding their position with fifteen out of dummy half on tackle four, ensuring Hynes was outside the forty when he put boot to ball.
Paulo struggled beneath the kick, losing it backwards in what would have been a disaster if there was a chase nearby, while Katoa defied Tupou and Suaalii as bravely beneath the next high ball as Mulitalo had contended with Manu out on his own wing. Hynes was now rotating through every kicking option, using his next one to try and split the Roosters backline, but without any joy. Still, Mulitalo put more petrol in the tank by leaping a metre off the turf to handle Keary’s next crossfield chip with his cleanest and most confident take of the night.
Collins now stepped into the spotlight, containing Mulitalo, and then a Hynes kick-and-chase at the other end of the park. It was starting to feel like the high ball contests might contour the last part of the game, and sure enough the Sharkies got some breathing-space when Suaalii tapped the next one over the sideline without Sione Katoa getting a hand to it. That turned out to be all they needed to score again, as Hynes reprised and exceeded his monster run up the middle by collecting a quick ball from Brailey and setting his sights on the left edge.
Again, he broke the line, dummying out to Ramien to buy himself some extra metres, and pivoting off the right boot to wrong-foot Teddy, who ended up making the legs tackle, but not soon enough to prevent Nicho from offloading back in to Brailey, who hit Walker five metres out from the chalk, came to ground on his back a metre out, and somersaulted through the Roosters’ five-eighth with enough momentum to give him just enough wriggle-room to get the Steeden down, off Walker’s own forearm, and cement the four points.
Hynes might have missed the kick, but this was still an enormous statement from the Sharkies – exactly the speed, strength and sheer vision that the Chooks have struggled to muster with their stacked lineup throughout 2023. A Kennedy error meant the Tricolours had a full set in the Cronulla ten a minute later, but a Manu crossfield dart wasn’t quite enough to set up Collins, who was one blade of grass further back than Cheese when he came to ground beside the right padding, before Cheese himself bounced it back to Nikora on the very next play.
This was the death knell for the Roosters, as the home crowd started to chant on the Sharks, and Hynes took a leisurely bomb from midway up the park. Tedesco caught it, but was met by a Graham-led pack well inside his twenty, and while the visitors made it to their thirty by the time Walker bombed, Mulitalo pirouetted up balletically to catch it, came straight to ground to avoid any chance of a dropout, and won a soft aerial tackle from Paulo to boot, while another Smith error, this time a shoulder charge on McInnes, leaked more position.
It hadn’t been a great night for Cheese, who was now sent to the bin, as Teddy remonstrated with Grant Atkins, as if aware that his men had well and truly lost the rhythm now. The Sharkies had 13-4 penalties, with a little under four minutes left on the clock, and capitalised immediately – first, with a Hamlin-Uele break on tackle four, which would have certainly produced a try if not for a heroic Keary tackle, and then with a Nikora break a second later, a little further out on the right, straight through a lingering hole in the Sydney City defence.
Full credit to Brailey for the pass, a superb sequel to his combo with Hynes a few minutes before, good enough to completely defy Egan Butcher’s ankle tap as last line of defence. This time Hynes added the extras too, bringing the Sharks to an impressive 22-12 win, and some much-needed closure to the lingering shock of their loss to the Warriors. The last note of the game was another sin bin for Victor Radley, a worrying sequel to last week’s hit on Cam Munster, meaning next week’s ANZAC Day clash against St. George has to be a big one.
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