The Raiders have outlasted the Sharks in an increasingly gritty and tense encounter at Remondis Stadium in Round 1 of the NRL Telstra Premiership.
In a seesawing affair that produced more passion out of its tiring participants as it continued, the Raiders were able to withstand a surging Sharks outfit to claim a deserved win. New playmaking combinations were on show for both teams in a match that saw two players sent to the sin bin after a heated punch up.
The Raiders, who were at times dominant in the first half, were slowly reeled in by the surging Sharks, however with the benefit of some experienced newcomers, such as Sia Soliola and Sisa Waqa the Raiders eventually came out victors. A dropped ball by Jeff Robson on the Sharks' final attacking effort proved the end of the encounter and sunk the hearts of the Cronulla crowd of 11,096.
In the 7th minute, some brilliant Canberra lead-up play exposed a shifting Cronulla defence. The ball was passed between Mitch Cornish, Jarrod Croker and eventually Jack Wighton who burst through the manufactured gap to open the scoring for the Green Machine. Wighton managed to ground the ball despite Michael Gordon's best efforts.
Soon after the referees pulled up a rushing Chris Heighington for a shoulder charge on Blake Austin after the Raiders playmaker executed a bomb. Croker converted the resulting penalty kick to take the Raiders to 8-0
The Sharks, who had completed just five of their first 10 sets, finally saw an attacking opportunity in the 22nd minute. The partisan Shire crowd let out a roar of appreciation as the resultant kick for touch found the stands after Ben Barba had failed to find the sideline from their first penalty.
With a full set on the Raiders line the Sharks spread the ball wide before looking back inside and getting their first taste of points as Anthony Tupou ran onto a beautiful offload from Heighington who capitalised on a slipping defender in front of the sticks. Gordon's conversion had the game at 8-6.
Barba showed some rust throughout the first half, never more so than in the 26th minute as his bomb found Wighton deep in his own in goal area. Wighton claimed an easy mark and as the Sharks turned back to their defensive line Wighton rushed, tapped the ball quickly on his own 20 and sprinted 80 metres untouched to make it 14-6 at halftime.
The second half began with the Sharks displaying some newfound enthusiasm. Jeff Robson dodged a rushing Raiders defence to find Barba wrapping around who then linked with Sosaia Feki who planted the ball to make it 14-12 after Gordon's conversion.
The Sharks dropped the ball off the ensuing kick-off, inviting the Raiders to recapture their advantage. The Green Machine went wide off the ensuing set with Austin linking to Wighton who sent a ball out wide to Rapana. The Raiders winger dived around Feki and planted the ball to take the advantage out to 18-12 after Croker's sideline miss.
In the 53rd minute, the Sharks again capitalised off a Raiders mistake at the back as Rapana failed to defuse an attacking kick. They looked to work over the Raiders right edge again and found what they were looking for as Ricky Leutele found space on the outside of Edrick Lee to plant the ball at full stretch.
A Sharks penalty kick tied the match at 18-all as Rapana limped off with a leg injury to further weaken an already stretched Raiders right edge.
Tensions erupted soon after as Wighton reacted to some relatively innocuous attention in the ruck. The star fullback threw a punch at Feki who retaliated with a swing of his own. Both players were sent to the sin-bin for 10 minutes. Gordon converted the penalty chance to put the Sharks in front with 18 to go.
In 63rd minute Waqa gave the Sharks a taste of their own medicine by scoring a four-pointer directly off a Sharks mistake. A poor chip from Austin went unclaimed by the Sharks before Waqa stretched out to find the paint. Croker's conversion pushed the margin back out to four points, and the Raiders hung on to that lead until full-time.
Sharks coach Shane Flanagan lamented some early-season cobwebs after his side’s performance.
"Poor discipline, not kicking out, not completing sets, dropping balls," he said.
"We probably didn't deserve to win it but we had an opportunity to. We're a better football side than we showed tonight."
Asked about the performance of his new five-eighth Barba, Flanagan said "He will have better ones for the club that's for sure. He got off to a bad start."
Canberra Raiders 24 (Wighton 2, Rapana, Waqa tries; Croker 4 goals) def Cronulla Sharks 20 (Tupou, Feki, Leutele tries, Gordon 4 goals) at Remondis Stadium. Crowd 11,096. Half time: Raiders 14-6.