Cronulla Sharks 42 Canberra Raiders 16
7:30 pm, Saturday 11th March
Canberra Stadium, Canberra
Missing the finals, are we Hindy? What a win. My god, what a team. All the build-up talk about redemption and revenge, with black, white and blue jerseys relevant only insofar as they were offering fodder for a green steamroller. Cronulla weren’t having any of that. This was more than just the two points. It was the Sharks showing their doubters – perhaps even showing themselves – where they can stick their premiership hangover theory.
Holmes is a big miss, but one you can understand given the length of the season and the importance of his fitness. Losing Beale during the week was yet another blow, further straining an already patchwork backline. What the absences allow is for Jack Bird to occupy the fullback role he’s been agitating to fill. He’s quietly terrific for the first try; Leutele makes the ideal run but it’s only ideal if you hit him with the ideal pass. Before then it’s all scrappy and sloppy, with neither side holding the ball, let alone doing what they’re capable of with it. Lee ties himself up in all sorts of positional knots before Wighton’s first.
Canberra approach the match so fixated on aggression that they play into Cronulla’s hands. For 25 minutes it’s effective enough, then the Sharks’ halves begin to click. Ricky Stuart’s fondness for up-and-in defence requires all his charges to move collectively. When they don’t, it’s not hard to puncture the line. Maloney spots Blake Austin rushing out on his own, and sends Graham through a hole in Canberra’s right edge. Austin’s no mug though, and a clever dummy opens up the space for him to find Rapana. You’ll take any lead at the break given how ordinary the game’s first quarter was. Two points will do.
Tries aren’t only about the final pass and the fella who places it down. There’s a set in minute 46 where half the team can claim a share of the credit. Edrick Lee sets the tone with a cracking kick return from his own posts. Jack Bird steals 15 metres. Chris Heighington likewise on the 5th tackle. (Worth noting that the bench – including Jeremy Latimore on his Cronulla debut – contributes far more this week than it did last). Instead of kicking, Chad Townsend goes short to Luke Lewis, who finds a gap. Jayden Brailey is not a hooker who goes through motions once he’s initiated a play. Soon as Lewis has the ball, he sprints to keep up on the inside, and his reward is a first ever try in the NRL. I’m trying to refrain from overhyping the kid, but Christ he can play. Not afraid to keep his teammates on their toes, either; a hidden gem from the aforementioned set is Brailey impatiently clapping his hands after a slow play-the-ball.
As they did in last year’s semi-final, Cronulla run at Canberra’s middle in the second half. Now as then, Josh Hodgson is hardly able to walk. The halves take full advantage by combining to send Graham in for his second. 24-10 with 25 to go is a position many sides would settle for, but the Sharks aren’t feeling charitable. Maloney wellies the ball downfield for a 40-20. What’s going on with them this season? Swear there’ve been about 58 in the past fortnight. Bird goes close, and with no-one vaguely resembling a marker, Graham says thanks a lot mate, and falls over for his third try.
By the hour mark, we’re basically taking the piss; attempting a world record for most consecutive penalties without conceding; Prior reminding home fans of his try that turned September’s match; Paulo grubbering for Gallen to score. That last one’s a contender for the funniest thing I’ve seen in a game of footy.
It should be acknowledged how poor the opposition was. But once their heads dropped, Cronulla didn’t allow them a moment’s peace. The second 40 was the equal of anything they produced in 2016. Whatever you could accuse them of missing against Brisbane was on show in abundance here. Plenty of raw power, but tonnes of intelligence too in the exploiting of Canberra’s weaknesses. The derby on Sunday. Every little thing anticipates you. Up the Sharks. They’re still really, really good at football, I’ll have you know.
Cronulla Sharks 42 (Wade Graham 3, Ricky Leutele, Jayden Brailey, Matt Prior, Paul Gallen tries, James Maloney 7 goals) defeated Canberra Raiders 16 (Jack Wighton 2, Jordan Rapana tries, Aidan Sezer 2 goals) at Canberra Stadium.