Eels stun NYC minor premiers
The Parramatta Eels have surged into Holden Cup favouritism after they totally outclassed the minor premiers with a dominant 35-22 win over Cronulla at Allianz Stadium.
Cronulla were expected to coast through the finals after they enjoyed a 15-match winning streak earlier in the year, but after dropping their last two games of the regular season doubt is starting to creep in with John Morris's men set to take on the Sea Eagles next week in a do-or-die clash.
Eels winger Greg Leleisiuao showed why he has been tipped to replace Semi Radradra in Parramatta's NRL side next season with the powerhouse flanker scoring a double and running for nearly 300 metres as he savaged Cronulla's defence with brutal carry after brutal carry.
Cronulla finished the regular season with the best defensive and attacking records and it didn't take long for the Sharks to show why they were the runaway minor premiers as they absorbed Parramatta's pressure for 10 minutes and then hit them on the counter with their first opportunity as star halfback Kyle Flanagan crossed for his 20th try of the year to continue his incredible point scoring record in 2017.
It was a cruel blow for the Eels but they didn't let it show as Dane Aukafolau punished an error from the kick-off to level things up with his eighth try of the season.
Parramatta continued to dominate field position and possession but once again found themselves behind on the scoreboard when the Sharks chanced their arm from inside their own half and were rewarded with their second try of the afternoon when Josh Tuilagi finished off a slick movement in the left corner.
Just when you thought the minor premiers would flex their muscles, the blue and golds showed why they earned a top-four finish as halfback Troy Dargan powered through some brittle goal-line defence to give his side the lead after half an hour.
An incredible first half deserved a special finish and Sharks five-eighth Luke Metcalf delivered as he reeled in a slips catch deep in his own half and then sprinted away to give Cronulla a four-point advantage at the break.
The half-time break did little to slow down the drama as the Eels reclaimed the lead just three minutes into the second stanza when wrecking ball winger Leleisiuao charged onto a short ball from Reed Mahoney to make it 18-16.
Having traded tries throughout the afternoon, Parramatta became the first side to go back-to-back when prop Sean Keppie broke through a simple one-on-one tackle to score under the posts to give the Eels a deserved eight-point buffer.
Luke Burt's men could do no wrong and they extended their lead 20 minutes from the end when Aukafolau latched onto a miraculous around-the-corner offload from Salesi Faingaa and then swerved past the fullback to make it 30-16.
Cronulla's famed defence was nowhere to be seen as Leleisiuao touched down for his second of the afternoon although the Sharks were able to pull one back when Will Kennedy benefited from a pair of classy kicks to score the try of the match.
That movement seemed to wake the Sharks from their slumber and they should have cut the gap to six points when they threw the ball around at will on the left edge but the play came unstuck when Metcalf lost the ball a metre short of the line.
With the game all but over, Eels five-eighth Dean Matterson slotted a field goal to earn his side a week off and a spot in the NYC preliminary finals.
Eels 35 (Dane Aukafolau 2, Greg Leleisiuao 2, Troy Dargan, Sean Keppie tries; Troy Dragan 5 goals; Dean Matterson field goal) def. Sharks 22 (Kyle Flanagan, Josh Tuilagi, Luke Metcalf, Will Kennedy tries; Kyle Flanagan 3 goals) at Allianz Stadium. Half-time: 16-12 Sharks.