Sharks overcome spirited Knights
Cronulla will head into the 2017 finals series well prepared to defend their premiership after being forced to overcome a fast-finishing Newcastle Knights side 26-18 at McDonald Jones Stadium.
The Sharks were clinical against a nervous Knights outfit early on, racing out to an 18-0 lead, but the Novocastrians responded with two tries of their own to trail by six at the half-time break.
Newcastle's slow start deflated the momentum in front of a healthy crowd on Old Boys day, with Sharks skipper Paul Gallen enormous for the visitors and well supported by NSW pair Andrew Fifita and James Maloney.
Gallen ran for a massive 300 metres in a 76-minute effort, while Fifita and Maloney provided the intensity and control in the pivotal moments of the contest.
Knights halfback Trent Hodkinson pulled off a classic try-saving tackle on Luke Lewis, but the home side failed to recoup in time for Valentine Holmes to burrow over from dummy half the following play for the first try of the afternoon.
Play was stopped momentarily with concerns over Gallen and Jacob Saifiti (both neck), but the pair remained on the field in humid conditions.
The Novocastrians were their own worst enemies with a poor 43 per cent completion rate in the opening quarter of the game, and Shane Flanagan's men looked in cruise control as they piled on two tries in quick succession set up the win.
First Sharks halfback Chad Townsend threw a dummy to brush past Mitch Barnett and Jamie Buhrer to the line, before Fifita put milestone man Matt Prior into a hole for Jayden Brailey to stroll over untouched.
Knights coach Nathan Brown injected NRL debutant Tyrone Amey onto the paddock and the young prop helped get the side on the board with an impressive short ball for Lachlan Fitzgibbon to charge over under the posts.
Newcastle stormed home in the final 10 minutes of the half to lay on another four-pointer – again to Fitzgibbon – who charged over the line off a Danny Levi short ball in a near identical play.
Fitzgibbon's afternoon took a hit the set after the break when he left the field with a compound dislocation to his thumb as Cronulla extended their lead to eight with Amey penalised for staying in the ruck too long.
The visitors stretched further ahead four minutes later when Sharks NRL debutant Jesse Ramien latched onto a late Gallen offload and stepped inside Nathan Ross to score his team's fourth of the afternoon.
Ross made up for the defensive lapse to pick up a Luke Lewis error and race 60 metres down the field before being chased down by James Maloney.
In a similar scenario to the opening half, Levi burrowed under Townsend and Lewis to narrow Cronulla's lead to eight with 18 minutes remaining.
Back-to-back penalties from the Sharks led to a warning from referee Henry Perenara as the Knights blew two opportunities to set up a grandstand finish.
Cronulla back-rower Luke Lewis left the field late in the game with a shoulder complaint, but the club was adamant it was a precautionary move.
The Sharks will finish the regular season in fifth position, with their opposition to be decided following the Dragons-Bulldogs clash in Sydney.
Cronulla Sharks 26 (Holmes, Townsend, Brailey, Ramien tries; Maloney 5 goals) defeated Newcastle Knights 18 (Fitzgibbon 2, Levi tries; Hodkinson 3 goals) at McDonald Jones Stadium. Half-time: Sharks 18-12. Crowd: 20,535.
NRL.com unofficial votes: 3 points - Paul Gallen; 2 points - James Maloney; 1 point - Lachlan Fitzgibbon.