Sharks make it five in a row with win over Bulldogs
Cronulla captain Paul Gallen is confident that the club will continue to be a premiership force after he finishes his playing career following a fifth successive win by the injury hit Sharks to propel them into fifth place.
Gallen, Josh Dugan and Jayson Bukuya made successful returns to help Cronulla to a 22-16 defeat of Canterbury at Southern Cross Group Stadium on Sunday but the team's success in their absence has provided a glimpse into the future.
"I spoke to a lot of young guys at the start of the season and we got rid of some real experienced first graders like Sam Tagatese and Chris Heighington to replace them with guys like Jack Williams and Braden Uele, Scott Sorensen," Gallen said.
"We have got a lot of faith in them and over the last month they have done a good job. These young blokes coming through are going to take over one day and hopefully, they can keep doing it."
The defeat of the Bulldogs was a typically gritty Sharks win but coach Shane Flanagan said the manner in which the team has coped with the absence of Gallen, Dugan, Wade Graham and Luke Lewis was pleasing.
Match: Sharks vs Bulldogs
Venue: Southern Cross Group Stadium
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"It gives me real confidence of where we are as a club," Flanagan said. "Blokes like Gal know that these younger blokes are coming to get them and they have got to play good as well, so that is a good place to be.
"We had a discussion five or six weeks ago, and it coincides with the form, that we need to enjoy our football probably more offensively and they have done it.
"Whilst we have some really experienced, quality players out we celebrated the players who were out and we enjoyed that period of time. I think that has helped."
The performance of props Andrew Fifita and Matt Prior have been instrumental in the team's recent success and they were again key players in the defeat of a Bulldogs side featuring Australian frontrow pair Aaron Woods and David Klemmer.
Klemmer carried the ball for 256 metres, while Woods ran 157m. In comparison, Fifita made 169m and Prior 95m.
However, it was the effort of Prior, who recently checked himself out of hospital to help the Sharks to victory over Gold Coast, which proved decisive in the win.
Receiving the ball one of the ruck near the Canterbury line when nothing seemed on, Prior forced his way through Bulldogs hooker Jeremy Marshall-King to score in a show of sheer will.
The Sharks received a boost before kick-off when Dugan was cleared to return from a foot injury but the Kangaroos centre appeared rusty when he fumbled a Mbye kick in the middle of the field.
Josh Morris made Cronulla pay for the error when he crossed for his 100th try for Canterbury in the ninth minute after halfback Kieran Foran got on the outside of rookie Sharks centre Jesse Ramien to create space for the veteran centre.
However, Cronulla hit back six minutes through winger Edrick Lee after sustained pressure following a series of penalties which prompted referee Matt Cecchin to issue a general warning to Bulldogs captain Josh Jackson.
A fifth consecutive penalty against the Bulldogs resulted in a 17th minute try to Sharks winger Valentine Holmes after five-eighth Matt Moylan kicked over the top of Canterbury's left side defence and the Test star raced through to score.
Morris appeared to suffer a serious knee injury attempting to tackle Cronulla opposite Jesse Ramien but he stayed on until halftime in a reminder of his brave effort for NSW in 2014. He did not return for the second half.
The Bulldogs did not receive their first penalty of the match until the 29th minute and with a share of possession they started to look dangerous.
Mbye was the player who provided the most spark for his side's attack, and a catch and pass in one motion created space for Brett Morris to cross in the corner in the 32nd minute.
However, his goalkicking was a let down for Canterbury and he missed both conversions before taking the decision to take a simple penalty goal attempt just before halftime to level the scores at 10-10.
The Sharks started the second half in similar fashion to the first, with hooker Jayden Brailey denied a try after he and second-rower Jayson Bukuya drove Mbye into his in-goal and the Canterbury fullback attempted an offload to five-eighth Matt Frawley.
Ramien regained the lead for Cronulla in the 50th minute when he stepped Morris's replacement Kerrod Holland, beat Frawley and proved too strong for Mbye to stop him scoring.
Brett Morris kept Canterbury in the game when he scored eight minutes later but with the majority of possession, the Sharks finished stronger and Prior secured the win when he charged through Marshall-King to score in the 68th minute.