Cronulla have limped into the the NRL finals with an unconvincing 26-18 win over wooden spooners Newcastle.
In front of more than 20,000 fans at McDonald Jones Stadium on Sunday, the Sharks secured their fifth-placed finish and a home semi-final with young outside back Jesse Ramien scoring a try on his NRL debut.
Ramien, who played for the Sharks in their World Club Challenge defeat at the start of the season, replaced Kurt Capewell in the centres with Capewell shifting to the back-row for the rested Wade Graham.
Cronulla flew out of the blocks, opening up an 18-0 lead midway through the first half before two quick tries to the Knights just before half-time had Newcastle back in the game.
Though the Sharks ran out eight-point winners, their unpolished second half against a Knights side who collected their third-straight last-placed finish will raise questions as to whether or not Cronulla are ready to cope with finals football.
The Sharks were also still without Jack Bird who again failed to make a comeback from a shoulder problem.
Cronulla opened the scoring after just six minutes when Valentine Holmes dived over from dummy half to score his sixth try of the season. Though Knights captain Jamie Buhrer questioned whether Sharks back-rower Luke Lewis had obstructed Newcastle defenders on the goal line after playing the ball.
A Chad Townsend solo effort allowed the Sharks to double their advantage 10 minutes later as he sliced between Buhrer and Mitch Barnett. And when Matt Prior stormed through the middle of Newcastle’s defence and found Jayden Brailey backing up on his inside Cronulla were out to an 18-0 lead midway through the half.
But the Knights, buoyed by a large home crowd on their club’s Old Boys Day, refused to quit. Back-rower Lachlan Fitzgibbon scored twice in five minutes shortly before half-time as the Sharks went to sleep.
The first came from a tidy offload from debutant Tyrone Amey, the second a fired short pass almost on the goal line from Daniel Levi.
It was a sign of respect from Cronulla that their first points after half-time came from a James Maloney penalty goal, with the Sharks opting for two points and a 20-12 lead rather than chancing their arm close to Newcastle’s line.
Ramien scored his first NRL try eight minutes after the break, showing good speed and agility to round Nathan Ross and touch down after good work from Paul Gallen.
But again the Knights wouldn’t give up. Levi barged over from dummy half to reduce the deficit to 26-18 with 17 minutes remaining, though replays suggested Buhrer’s attempt to play the ball was questionable with the back-rower not facing square.
The Knights continued to press for the finals quarter of the game but Cronulla were able to grind out their 15th win of the season.
The Sharks will wait to find out their week one finals opponent later on Sunday afternoon. If fierce local rivals St George Illawarra down Canterbury, Cronulla will play Penrith. If the Dragons lose, the Sharks will face North Queensland.
Meanwhile, Cronulla’s under-20s side advance to the finals with their second defeat in a row, with the minor premiers going down 34-26 to the Knights.
Cronulla Sharks 26 (Valentine Holmes, Chad Townsend, Jayden Brailey, Jesse Ramien tries. James Maloney five goals)
Newcastle Knights 18 (Lachlan Fitzgibbon two tries. Trent Hodkinson two goals)
at McDonald Jones Stadium, Newcastle
Leader man of the match: Paul Gallen (Sharks)
Sharks’ next game: Cowboys, elimination semi-final. Allianz Stadium, Sunday 4pm.