Raiders eye finals with win over Sharks
Canberra have kept their slim Telstra Premiership finals hopes flickering with a potent 30-12 win over an undisciplined Cronulla at Southern Cross Group Stadium on Saturday night.
The win puts Canberra just two competition points behind the eighth-placed Dragons with four rounds to play, while Cronulla just remain in the top four for now.
Canberra put in their best half-hour of football of the year in a dominant first 40 minutes and responded well to having Josh Papalii sin-binned in the second half, completely starving their opponents of possession in the 10 minutes they were down to 12 men.
Raiders hooker Josh Hodgson was sublime for the visitors, tormenting Cronulla around the ruck, while the big Canberra pack – notably Shannon Boyd and Junior Paulo – dominated the usually fearsome Sharks forwards.
Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan could have another headache on his hands with centre Jack Bird being taken from the field late in the contest with a suspected dislocated shoulder.
Canberra's dominance came despite conceding an early 8-0 lead; an early penalty piggy-backed the Sharks into attacking range and a lovely Nu Brown pass sent Sosaia Feki over for first points in just the fifth minute. More penalties against the Raiders gave the Sharks a free two points to go 8-0 ahead.
But from the time the Raiders got a relieving penalty out of their end in the 14th minute they produced their best passage of football of the season, piling on 24 unanswered points.
Papalii, fresh off a two-game suspension, carved through Cronulla's right edge defence to get the ball rolling and a penalty goal squared it up at 8-all shortly after.
Winger Jordan Rapana – himself back from a one-game suspension this week – challenged Feki for a pinpoint Blake Austin bomb and when the Shark spilled his lollies it was a simple matter for Rapana to plant the ball and claim the lead.
A dangerous right-side play finished with Austin tackled just short of the line about seven minutes from halftime but an astute short-side play from Joey Leilua at dummy half saw Rapana claim a first-half double off a neat cut-out ball.
Canberra dealt a killer blow moments before the siren when hooker Hodgson dummied his way into space and surged over for a 24-8 lead.
The Raiders just needed to keep doing what they had in the first half but the Sharks started the second period the better and when a lovely run and offload from Valentine Holmes was followed by a sublime Bird pass to an unmarked Gerard Beale, the Sharks clawed back an important four points.
When Papalii was sin-binned for tackling Paul Gallen from an offside position after the Sharks skipper took a quick tap from a penalty, the danger signs were becoming alarming for the Raiders.
However the Sharks immediately handed the ball over when a poor Chad Townsend pass was dropped by Jason Bukuya in one of the biggest momentum-killers you will ever see.
From that point the undisciplined Sharks hardly touched the ball in the time Papalii was off the field and the Raiders added a trio of penalty goals to push out to a 30-12 lead and effectively end the contest.
Canberra earned five straight penalties in that time to frustrate Cronulla out of the game.
There were no further points in the contest although there was a lengthy delay while Bird received attention in the 74th minute and came off looking in considerable pain. The Sharks looked to have bagged a consolation try when Luke Lewis finished off an entertaining long-range team try but an obstruction by Wade Graham caused the try to be disallowed.
Canberra Raiders 30 (Rapana 2, Papalii, Hodgson tries; Croker 7 goals) defeated Cronulla Sharks 12 (Feki, Beale tries; Holmes 2 goals) at Southern Cross Group Stadium. Half time: Raiders 24-8. Crowd: 11,639.
NRL.com's unofficial votes: 3 points – Josh Hodgson; 2 points – Junior Paulo; 1 point – Josh Papalii.