The Canberra Raiders have confirmed their status as genuine premiership contenders with a 30-14 win – their sixth straight – to end Cronulla's 16-game unbeaten run on Saturday night. Josh Hodgson was the hero for the visitors while the table-topping Sharks looked off their game with star No.9 Michael Ennis sitting on the sidelines.
Josh Hodgson thrives in perfect English conditions
It was cold, slippery and played through the middle. In a nutshell, it was a game played in perfect conditions for Englishman Josh Hodgson.
The Raiders dummy-half was easily the best player on the field, turning the game on its head with two try assists in the space of three minutes to turn a two-point deficit into a 10-point lead midway through the first half.
The first was a simple pass close to the line on the last tackle, but there was nothing ordinary about the next try when he bamboozled the Cronulla defence with a scything run before putting it on the toe for Jordan Rapana to slide over.
Hodgson finished the game with 125 metres and 41 tackles, as well as a season-high five tackle breaks to get his side home.
"He's a fabulous player," Raiders coach Ricky Stuart said.
"He got in behind their defence a couple of times when they were rushing up out of marker and out of the line. He got in behind them and created some really healthy opportunities for us."
The Sharks desperately missed Michael Ennis
Hodgson's performance highlighted how important hookers are in the modern game, and the Sharks were dealt a blow before kick-off when their star No.9 was a late withdrawal with a virus.
Matt McIlwrick and Fa'amanu Brown were handy replacements but simply didn't provide the same threat as their more experienced teammate.
In a strange twist of fate, Ennis was also absent for his team back in 2012 when Canterbury's 12-game winning streak was ended by the Raiders.
Sharks coach Shane Flanagan confirmed Ennis would be available next week for the local derby against the Dragons, while skipper Paul Gallen refused to blame Ennis's absence for the loss.
"It's not the reason we won or lost," Gallen said.
"I thought the boys that stepped in there did a good job.
"I really thought our effort was there tonight. We were dominating in defence, and then all of a sudden we rushed up and their hooker makes a break and they score off the back of it."
Tough night for Cronulla's wingers
Greasy conditions rarely bode well for the outside backs, but it was a particularly poor night for Cronulla's men on the flanks.
Valentine Holmes came up with two errors with his side threatening in attack, and only ran the ball for 65 metres after averaging over 200 metres per game in the past fortnight.
Sosaia Feki wasn't much better and was guilty of putting a foot into touch when his side desperately needed a try to stay in the contest.
Fullback Ben Barba had a much better night, running for 111 metres and breaking the line twice.
It's far from panic stations for the game's most prolific back three, and they should add to their 42 combined tries next week against the Dragons.
Defence the key to Canberra's win
The Raiders have never had a problem winning matches on the back of their attack, but they've showed recently that they can get the job without the ball.
For the second week in a row, Canberra restricted their opponents to under 15 points; something they haven't done for a number of years.
What made their efforts all the more remarkable was the fact the Sharks were the second best attacking team in the NRL leading into Round 22.
"Defensively I thought we were very, very good tonight," Stuart said.
"We've had a little bit of continuity with not having too many changes to the team. That's a massive help.
"It was tough conditions out there for any real attack. You could see how slippery it was, so it was going to be a game that was won through defence. I was really happy with the guys' commitment to our 'D'."
Raiders skipper Jarrod Croker agreed.
"I'd like to not be doing so much of it, but we're confident now that if we do make an error we can defend our mistakes."
Blake Austin's injury doesn't appear serious
Raiders five-eighth Blake Austin was forced from the field after an hour with what appeared to be a shoulder injury, but the initial prognosis from his halves partner was that he should be fine.
Austin injured the shoulder in the process of scoring his side's fourth try of the evening in trademark style, showing and going before momentum carried him into the in-goal.
The 25-year-old missed five matches earlier in the season with two separate leg injuries, but isn't expected to be sidelined this time around.
"It was probably more precautionary," Aidan Sezer told NRL.com.
"He scored a great try so I'm sure that will help with the pain."