Sharks players celebrate during their qualifying final with the Raiders at GIO Stadium.

Sharks edge Raiders in Canberra thriller

The Cronulla Sharks have advanced to their first preliminary final since 2008 following a thrilling 16-14 win over the Raiders courtesy of a 76th-minute penalty goal to five-eighth James Maloney.

 

With the game tied at 14-all, Sharks fullback Ben Barba was collected high by Elliott Whitehead in front of the posts allowing the NSW Blues pivot to step up and knock over the two points to clinch the gutsiest of wins for his side. 

With skipper Paul Gallen already missing with a back injury, the Sharks were dealt another blow when back-rower Wade Graham was forced from the field in the eighth minute after being concussed attempting a front-on tackle on Joey Leilua.

Missing two of their best forwards, Matt Prior produced arguably his best game in Cronulla colours scoring a try, playing a huge part in their second and running for a season-high 224 metres. 

Canberra's loss might have been further soured with start English import Josh Hodgson carried from the field with a leg injury early in the second half. 

Hodgson appeared to collect an accidental boot from teammate Aidan Sezer as the halfback attempted a tackle on Sharks forward Luke Lewis and was in so much discomfort that he had to be carried off by two trainers.

 


The Raiders were in control at that stage but looked rudderless without their creative No.9, only adding two points in his absence. 

It was a deflating result for the Green Machine faithful who were hoping to see their side make it 11 wins in a row and advance to their first preliminary final in the NRL era. 

It looked like the match would be played in miserable conditions with persistent rain peppering the nation's capital all day, but the footy gods smiled down on GIO Stadium with the drizzle clearing before kick-off.

A sea of green and a sprinkling of blue witnessed a spine-tingling rendition of the Viking Clap before the game got underway shrouded in smoke from the pre-game pyrotechnics. 

The Sharks looked to have opened the scoring in the 10th minute when Chad Townsend sliced through on the right edge, but their joy was short-lived as the Bunker confirmed the on-field ruling of 'no try' because of an error in the lead-up. 

It would prove a costly miss for the visitors as back-to-back penalties and a fortuitous six again call propelled the Green Machine up-field for Hodgson to juggle his way through the defensive line to post the first points of the evening. 

The lead soon swelled to 12 points when Jordan Rapana scooped up a loose ball from James Maloney to streak 80 metres to have the capacity crowd in raptures. 

With the Raiders dominating both possession and territory, the match could have been well and truly over before half-time, but to their credit, Cronulla bravely protected their line to stay in the contest. 

Their desperate defence was rewarded as the Sharks halved the deficit with the final play of the half when Matt Prior broke through from a Michael Ennis pass, and despite Jack Wighton's best efforts in defence, managed to fight his way over. 

The second half started horribly for the Raiders with Hodgson carried off in the arms of two trainers, and needing to settle things down, skipper Jarrod Croker landed a long-range penalty goal to open up an eight-point advantage. 

It would prove to be a clever choice as the Sharks hit straight back through Valentine Holmes who flew through to ground a Luke Lewis grubber to make it 14-12 Canberra's way.  

The Raiders should have moved further in front on the hour-mark when a huge bust by Josh Papalii amounted to nothing when back-up rake Kurt Baptiste inexplicably went himself when he had support inside and out. 

Instead, the Sharks marched downfield and levelled things up with via the trustworthy boot of James Maloney to make it 14-all with 14 minutes left to play.

Sezer had a chance to put the Raiders back in front but his 73rd-minute field goal attempt sailed wide, and from the following set, Maloney took full advantage of the Whitehead indiscretion to seal the famous comeback win. 

Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks 16 (Matt Prior, Valentine Holmes tries; James Maloney 4 goals) defeated Canberra Raiders 14 (Josh Hodgson, Jordan Rapana tries; Jarrod Croker 3 goals) at GIO Stadium. Half-time: 12-6 Raiders. Crowd: 25,592. Injuries: Wade Graham (concussion), Josh Hodgson (leg).