The return of injured stars Wade Graham and Matt Moylan has helped propel Cronulla back into serious finals contention after an impressive 39-24 defeat of South Sydney at Pointsbet Stadium on Saturday night.
With Prime Minister Scott Morrison among the 13,523 crowd urging them on, the Sharks turned in their best performance of the season to leapfrog Wests Tigers, Penrith, Brisbane and Newcastle into seventh place on the Telstra Premiership ladder.
Fielding a full-strength team for the first time this season, the Sharks out-muscled, out-enthused and out-played the Rabbitohs, who have now dropped to third behind Canberra on for-and-against and will be fourth if the Roosters beat Gold Coast on Sunday.
Graham, who was playing his first match since suffering a hamstring injury in Origin III, had a hand in three tries and was one of five Sharks forwards to carry the ball more than 100 metres, led by Paul Gallen (196m).
Nobody can bring what Wade brings. I'm really enjoying him being back on the field," Cronulla coach John Morris said. "That's only his fourth game for the year. Let's hope he's got another five and some finals. His input is massive for our club.
"It was there for everyone to see tonight. He finished with three try assists. His ability to play with the ball, he's got so much time, he adds a new dimension to our attack. It's great to have his leadership as well.
"His skill level hasn't changed much, but his composure under pressure and leadership on and off the field is invaluable for me. I'm really happy he had an influence on the game tonight and it will be really good for his confidence.''
Match: Sharks v Rabbitohs
Round 20 -
Venue: PointsBet Stadium, Sydney
- LIVE PASS
Moylan also played a starring role after returning from a hamstring injury and he produced a try assist for rookie winger Ronaldo Mutalino.
In contrast, Souths captain Sam Burgess had a comeback he would rather forget after being placed on report for a high tackle on Moylan in the fourth minute and conceding a vital second-half penalty for rubbing his elbow into Paul Gallen's face.
Burgess had missed five matches and any charge by the NRL match review committee is likely to result in a suspension as he has twice been fined for contrary conduct this season and served a two-match ban last year for dangerous contact.
Moylan played another 16 minutes after the high tackle before being taken from the field for a HIA because technical problems prevented medical staff on the sideline from being able to watch a replay of the incident. He was cleared to return after the HIA.
The former NSW Origin representative overcame the high shot from Burgess to save what appeared set to be an early Rabbitohs try when he kicked an in-goal grubber by Adam Reynolds dead before Cody Walker could downward pressure on the ball.
The frustration in the Souths camp was obvious after prop Tom Burgess knocked on from the goal-line drop and Reynolds lost the ball in a perfectly timed hit by Graham.
“I don’t mind aggression but I don’t like cheap plays,” Sam Burgess told referee Adam Gee.
Mulitalo scored the opening try of the match in the 20th minute after Moylan created an overlap by chiming into the backline and dummying inside before passing outside to the rookie winger.
Despite losing Moylan for a HIA after the try, the Sharks did not miss a beat and Graham put stand-in fullback Josh Dugan over three minutes later to extend their lead to 14-0 after Shaun Johnson’s second conversion from out wide.
However, the Rabbitohs showed what they can do with a share of possession when winger Dane Gagai sprinted 40 metres to pounce on a perfectly weighted Reynolds kick and slide across the line to score in the 27th minute.
Hooker Damien Cook then raced out of dummy half to put fellow NSW Blue Cameron Murray over two minutes later and reduce the deficit to14-12, despite the visitors having had just 32 per cent of possession.
The rally was merely an interruption to proceedings and Bronson Xerri scored in the 36th minute after Graham picked up the ball at dummy half on the last tackle, looked right to where halfback Chad Townsend was set for a kick and passed left to the boom centre.
Winger Josh Morris then gave the Sharks a 24-12 lead at half-time with a 39th minute try when he won the race for a kick by Jayden Brailey into the in-goal after an offload from Braden Hamlin-Uele put the hooker into the clear.
It was only the fourth time this season that the Sharks had gone to the break with a lead and they went on with the job in the second term.
The penalty against Burgess for the Gallen incident enabled Johnson to kick his fifth goal in the 55th minute and when Graham laid on Xerri’s second try nine minutes later Cronulla led by 20 points.
A Cody Walker try two minutes later gave Rabbitohs fans a slight glimmer of hope that they could again get of jail as they had done in the previous two weeks against the Cowboys and Dragons but Cronulla proved a different prospect.