Slick Sharks smash Raiders in Canberra
A Wade Graham hat-trick propelled the Sharks to a comprehensive 42-16 win over an out-of-sorts Raiders side in the nation's capital on Saturday night.
The defending premiers recovered from a sloppy first half to score 30 unanswered points at one stage to secure their fifth straight win in Canberra, with Jack Bird playing a starring role as the club's fourth-choice fullback.
After an energy-sapping golden point loss in Townsville last week, the home side simply couldn't keep up with their opponents who tore them to shreds through the middle of the ruck.
The shellacking mightn't be Canberra's biggest concern with Joseph Leilua failing to finish the game and skipper Josh Hodgson hobbling for most of the second half.
The only thing that separated these sides in last year's finals was a James Maloney penalty goal, and it was fitting that the Sharks five-eighth opened the scoring in the 14th minute after Josh Hodgson was penalised for a grapple tackle on Paul Gallen.
But the defending premiers committed the cardinal sin with Andrew Fifita spilling the ball from the ensuing kick-off, and he was made to pay when Raiders fullback Jack Wighton sliced through from the scrum to give his side the lead.
An error-riddled period followed with neither team able to complete a set for what seemed an eternity, until Ricky Leutele charged onto a Jack Bird short ball to cross for Cronulla's first try of the night.
It didn't take long for the visitors to extend their lead as they took full advantage of a fifth-tackle penalty to march downfield, allowing Maloney to set up Graham for a try that looked all too easy.
Blake Austin's poor read played a big part in his side falling behind, but the Raiders five-eighth responded in style moments later with a shortside show-and-go to set up try-scoring machine Jordan Rapana for his first of the season.
A penalty against Sia Soliola for attacking the legs of the kicker allowed Maloney to push the lead out to four points three minutes into the second half before rookie No.9 Jayden Brailey backed up a Luke Lewis break to score his maiden NRL try to make it 20-10.
Momentum was all with the defending premiers and they moved further in front in the 54th minute when Graham ran onto a short ball off Maloney's left hip and showed enough strength to reach the line.
The procession continued from the next set as Maloney nailed a 40/20 to put his side on the attack, and three plays later Graham dived over from dummy-half to complete his first hat-trick in the NRL.
Even when he wasn't scoring tries, Graham still ravaged the Raiders as he picked out a hard-running Matt Prior who crashed over for a thoroughly-deserved four-pointer late in the contest.
There was time for one last highlight when Joseph Paulo put in a shock grubber from acting-half for Sharks skipper Paul Gallen to score one of the easiest tries of his 17-year career, before Wighton crossed for a consolation try at the death to give the home fans something to cheer about.
Sharks 42 (Wade Graham 3, Ricky Leutele, Jayden Brailey, Matt Prior, Paul Gallen tries; James Maloney 7 goals) def. Raiders 16 (Jack Wighton 2, Jordan Rapana tries; Aidan Sezer 2 goals) at GIO Stadium. Half-time: 12-10. Crowd: 15,807