An injury-hit Sharks side has held off a spirited Gold Coast comeback despite finishing the game with just one fit player on their bench in a nervy 25-20 win.
The match went right down to the wire with the Titans having an all-or-nothing play at the Sharks line after the final siren to try and find six points to steal the win but Cronulla batted Ash Taylor's kick dead to hang on in front of 11,753 partisan Sharks fans.
The home side lost James Maloney and Luke Lewis (both concussion) in the first half and Andrew Fifita (arm) late in the piece having coughed up a 14-0 lead to at one stage trail 18-14 as the rookie Gold Coast halves showed exemplary control and maturity in a physical and at times spiteful match.
The visitors also lost bench utility Dan Mortimer to concussion in the first half but it was the mature effort of young halfback Taylor – who forced repeated drop outs with his deft kicking game – and the impressive debut of pivot Cameron Cullen that will give fans plenty of hope for the rest of the season.
Despite falling behind 14-0 early the Titans showed the same resilience they have all year to claim the lead shortly after half time but a rattled Sharks outfit rallied and a cool Chad Townsend field goal put them up 21-20 with just over 10 minutes remaining and they were never headed from that point despite a late scare.
A fiery first half saw the Sharks squander what should have been a match-winning lead while no fewer than four players left the field under the concussion rule and two players were placed on report.
An error-riddled Titans outfit handed Cronulla the early advantage which they took via a fortuitous length-of-the-field dash by Ben Barba with the bunker ruling insufficient evidence on a possible James Maloney knock on in the lead-up.
One try became two when a good running set and Andrew Fifita offload set the scene for a Wade Graham cut-out pass to send Sosaia Feki over out wide, though Maloney hit the sticks for the second time to keep the Sharks going up in four-point increments.
He would have had an easier shot to make it 14-0 when Matt Prior crashed over shortly after in the 18th minute, but a late Greg Bird hit rattled Maloney on the previous play leaving Val Holmes to add the extras with Maloney taking no further part in the match under the concussion rule.
Nathan Friend, Daniel Mortimer and Luke Lewis were the other players assessed for head knocks in a fiery first half while Nene McDonald (crusher) and Greg Bird (for his late hit on Maloney) were placed on report. Of the concussion checks only Friend returned to the field, leaving the Sharks to field Jack Bird in the halves with bench utility Gerard Beale in the centres.
The momentum began to swing when a loose Townsend pass allowed McDonald to streak away for a length-of-the-field effort of his own in the 26th minute before debutant half Cam Cullen stepped through for an impressive solo try in the 32nd to close the gap to two points at the break.
An early drop deep in his own half from Sam Tagataese helped the Titans hit the lead in the 44th minute when impressive young halfback Taylor dummied and stepped through the line and when Cronulla kicked out on the full they looked to be falling apart.
But the Titans were at times their own worst enemies looking to shut Cronulla out and an error put the home side in range from where a neat Mick Ennis grubber sat up nicely for Fifita to score under the posts in the 56th minute.
There was a hint of controversy about the penalty goal that drew the Titans level at 20-all in the 65th minute with Barba hit hard by Greg Bird as he fielded a bomb. The crowd wanted a penalty for the fullback being tackled in mid-air but the bunker ruled his toe hit the ground right as Bird made contact and instead awarded the visitors an offside penalty after Cronulla picked the loose ball up.
But the Sharks responded well, working it upfield comfortably as tackle-busting prop Fifita cut loose late in the game with some huge runs and Townsend slotted what would prove to be the match-winning point before a slick Holmes try just inside the right corner post made it 25-20 and the Sharks were able to repel Gold Coast's final raid.
Cronulla Sharks 25 (Barba, Feki, Prior, Fifita, Holmes tries; Holmes 2 goals; Townsend field goal) defeated Gold Coast Titans 20 (McDonald, Cullen, Taylor tries; Taylor 3 goals; Taylor field goal). Half-time: Sharks 14-6. Crowd: 11,753. On report: Nene McDonald, Greg Bird.