Sharks hold off Brisbane in a thriller
The Cronulla Sharks have survived a monumental comeback by the Broncos to claim their sixth straight win with a 30-28 victory at Southern Cross Group Stadium.
In what was their first day game since Round 19 last year, the Broncos seemingly struggled to handle the early kick-off, falling behind by 22 points after 40 minutes.
But as the sun set in Sydney's Shire, the 2015 grand finalists clicked into gear with four unanswered tries after the break to almost pull off one of the biggest comebacks of the season.
The Sharks had earlier put on their best half of footy in 2016 to pile on 28 points before the break, but were restricted to a solitary James Maloney penalty goal in the second half – which proved to be the difference in the end – to join the Broncos, Cowboys and Storm at the top of the NRL Telstra Premiership ladder.
The warning signs were there early for the Broncos as Sosaia Feki went agonisingly close to forcing a grubber from Gerard Beale after six minutes.
A high shot on Corey Parker moments later allowed the Broncos lock to knock over the gift two points but it did nothing to stem the Sharks' momentum.
After Jack Bird forced a line dropout with a deft kick, Feki got the try he had been denied earlier courtesy of a gem of a cut-out pass from former Bronco Ben Barba.
The hosts were in again when Michael Ennis spotted some space behind the ruck to kick through for Paul Gallen who beat Anthony Milford to the loose ball to extend Cronulla's lead.
A knock on from the kick off gave the Broncos a much needed reprieve, and several plays later, Darius Boyd did what his opposite number did at the other end to send Jordan Kahu over in the corner.
That try would prove to be a mere anomaly as Cronulla swiftly responded through five-eighth James Maloney who stumbled over the line for his fourth try of the season.
The Cronulla faithful could hardly believe their eyes as a Barba grubber was fumbled by Kahu into the waiting arms of Beale who produced a miraculous offload for Feki to dive over for his second.
There was still time for the hosts to add to their tally before the break, and they did just that with Chad Townsend showing the poise of an Australian slips fielder to snuffle in a Maloney kick – his second such effort in the space of a minute – to score under the sticks.
The 28-6 half-time score was a true reflection of Cronulla's dominance as they restricted the Broncos to just 413 running metres (they average 1,614 a game in 2016) and most of them came from one scintillating run from James Roberts.
Whatever Broncos coach Wayne Bennett told his players at the break did the trick as the visitors stormed back into the contest with two quick tries to close the gap to 12 points.
The first was an almost obligatory try to Corey Oates who took advantage of a spilled kick by Bird to dive over for his eighth try of the season before Roberts fought through several would-be-tacklers to have the home fans sweating.
The Broncos dodged a couple of bullets with both Beale and Chris Heighington going close, but it was a case of third time unlucky for the visitors as Maloney pushed the lead out to 14 points with another penalty goal 20 minutes from full-time.
But just as day turned to night, the Broncos of old came to life to turn what had been an absorbing contest into one of the games of the season.
Fittingly it was a pair of veterans who did the damage, as Sam Thaiday crashed over off Boyd's third try assist of the evening before the evergreen Corey Parker had NRL Fantasy coaches in raptures as he fought through three defenders to make it a two-point game with eight minutes to play.
A huge hit by Jayson Bukuya on Ben Hunt at the death looked to have ended it only for the bunker to rule it a shoulder charge and hand the Broncos one last chance.
However, Anthony Milford's grubber was easily handled by Barba to consign the Broncos to just their second loss of the season.
Cronulla Sharks 30 (Sosaia Feki 2, Paul Gallen, James Maloney, Chad Townsend tries; James Maloney 5 goals) defeated Brisbane Broncos 28 (Jordan Kahu, Corey Oates, James Roberts, Sam Thaiday, Corey Parker tries; Corey Parker 2, Jordan Kahu 2 goals) at Southern Cross Group Stadium. Half-time: 28-6 Sharks. Crowd: 14,406.