Minor premiers Cronulla have missed their chance to move straight through to a preliminary final, losing their Holden Cup qualifying final 35-22 to Parramatta.
The young Sharks played as the curtain raiser to Cronulla’s first grade elimination final against North Queensland at Allianz Stadium on Sunday.
The loss was Cronulla’s third in a row after the Sharks suffered defeats against the Sydney Roosters and Newcastle to finish the season.
Cronulla will now play an elimination semi-final against Manly at ANZ Stadium on Saturday night.
Cronulla opened the scoring after 10 minutes when prop Ryan King made a break near halfway before drawing Parramatta fullback Anthony Layoun and finding Kyle Flanagan backing up on the inside to score under the posts.
But the Eels hit back almost immediately on the back of a Sharks error, with Dane Aukafolau crashing over from close range.
Cronulla regained the lead midway through the half when Isaac Lumelume made another break just inside Parramatta’s half before finding Josh Tuilagi, with the winger showing good strength to hold off two defenders to score.
The Sharks weren’t in front for long, with Eels halfback Troy Dargan stepping between three defenders to score next to the posts after half an hour.
But the see-sawing nature of the half continued with Cronulla snatching back the lead three minutes before half-time when Dargen planted a short kick into the midriff of Luke Metcalf, with the Sharks five-eighth running 90 metres to score.
The Eels were back in front three minutes after the break when Greg Leleisiuao again showed up Cronulla’s poor goal line defence when he charged through from close range to score under the posts. Parramatta then opened up a 24-16 lead nine minutes into the second half when Sean Keppie again scored under the posts from close to the line and extended the advantage when Aukafolau crossed for his second try.
Parramatta looked to have sealed victory 15 minutes from full-time when Leleisiuao scored in the corner after a shift to the right before William Kennedy gave the Sharks a late glimmer of hope.
Lumelume picked up a Kennedy grubber before kicking again for the Sharks fullback, with Kennedy racing through to score. Flanagan’s conversion from out wide reduced the deficit to 34-22 with just under 10 minutes to play.
But Eels captain Dean Matterson kicked a field goal in the final minutes to end the contest.
Cronulla also had Jesse Ramien and Briton Nikora placed on report for lifting tackles.
Parramatta Eels 35 (Dane Aukafolau two, Greg Leleisiuao two, Troy Dargan, Sean Keppie tries. Troy Dargan five goals. Dean Matterson field goal)
Cronulla Sharks 22 (Kyle Flanagan, Josh Tuilagi, Luke Metcalf tries. Kyle Flanagan two goals)
at Allianz Stadium