Last year's wooden-spooners Cronulla Sharks ended the premiership defence of the South Sydney Rabbitohs with an impressive 28-12 victory at Allianz Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
In a season that will be remembered for their faulty finish and not their World Club Challenge, Auckland Nines and Charity Shield wins – with Souths ending their year with four-straight losses – it would be their opponents instead who'd bounce back in the best way imaginable after missing out on a top four berth last weekend.
The Sharks will now head to Townsville to face the North Queensland Cowboys in the semi finals this Saturday night, though will have some concerns with Michael Ennis on report and Valentine Holmes carrying a suspected corked quadriceps.
The 27,000 strong Allianz Stadium crowd also ensured a week one finals attendance record, with 131,794 fans making attending four games over the weekend.
While they won big by game's end there was concerns Cronulla would have to make do with 16 men when Andrew Fifita headed up the tunnel with back spasms before a ball was kicked. After coming out twice for mini fitness tests in the 18th and 26th minute, Fifita finally ended his six-week suspension exodus in the backend of the first stanza.
As Fifita was furiously getting worked on by club doctors, the opening stages of the game was all South Sydney who were out to reverse the past three weeks of shutout starts. Luke Keary was placed on report for a possible eye gouge on Shark Paul Gallen.
The first try of the match came midway through the first half when Sharks five-eighth Jack Bird took it upon himself to score. Handed the ball for an apparent backline movement, Bird pushed past Kirisome Auva'a and outpaced Greg Inglis to eventually put the ball down.
A high shot on Sharks winger Sosaia Feki by Inglis in the 31st minute presented Cronulla a chance in good territory which they took a minute later when back-rower Wade Graham freakishly caught a Jeff Robson grubber one handed before bringing it back into both hands to score his side's second of the match.
A 35th minute forward pass from the play the ball by winger Alex Johnston in their own half saw Cronulla forward Anthony Tupou score his second try of the season. After hooker Michael Ennis held up defenders Tim Grant and Paul Carter, his well-timed pass allowed Tupou to slice through and power over Inglis to cross under the black dot.
Keary looked to have pegged one back for South Sydney in the 50th minute after gathering an Ennis grubber in-goal and racing 105 metres to apparently score under the posts. Ruled no try initially, it was exactly that, after Jason Clark obstructed Robson as Keary began his run downfield.
In an eight point turnaround Gordon's penalty goal moments later secured Cronulla a 20-point lead which was furthered when prop Sam Tagataese forced his way past the terrible defence of Carter and Chris Grevsmuhl to score in the 60th minute.
Inglis was placed on report for a careless swinging arm on a concussed Gallen after the Sharks skipper made a memorable 35 metre run through South Sydney's turnstile defence, which saw Gordon step up again four minutes later to kick another penalty goal.
Rabbitohs centre Dylan Walker pegged one try back in the 67th minute while Grevsmuhl made the scoreline more respectable in the 76th minute but by then it was far too late for the reigning premiers.
Cronulla Sharks 28 (Jack Bird, Wade Graham, Anthony Tupou, Sam Tagataese Tries; Michael Gordon 6 Goals) defeated South Sydney Rabbitohs 12 (Dylan Walker, Chris Grevsmuhl Tries; Adam Reynolds 2 Goals) at Allianz Stadium. Crowd: 27,031. Half-time: Sharks 18-0. On Report: Luke Keary (Rabbitohs) – 7th minute; Greg Inglis (Rabbitohs) – 64th minute; Michael Ennis (Sharks) – 68th minute.