So, who’s going to stop the Cronulla Sharks?
Cronulla have set a new club record for consecutive victories, rallying from 18-0 down to score an impressive 34-24 win over Parramatta on Saturday night.
On a chilly night in the shire, the Sharks scored their 12th straight win in front of a sell out crowd of 19, 142 at Southern Cross Group Stadium to keep them on top of the table and pose the question to the rest of the NRL – who’s next?
The Cronulla teams of 1978 and 2002, who the current side had shared the record of 11 consecutive wins with, were swept aside as Shane Flanagan’s team provided further evidence – if any more was needed – that they are genuine premiership contenders.
Last season it was Cronulla who snapped North Queensland’s 11-game winning streak – having also trailed 18-0 that night in Townsville. But the Sharks overcame another sleepy start to run out deserved 10-point winners.
Sharks coach Shane Flanagan paid tribute to his side and said he was proud of the record.
“I just said to all the staff and management and all the playing group it’s a great achievement,” he said.
“But in the end it’s that playing group. I just come to work every day, it’s a pleasure to come to work. If I didn’t have a really good bunch of players and a talented group of players we wouldn’t be able to achieve [what we have].
“It’s hard in this competition to turn up each week with that mindset that you’ve got to win and they’ve done it for 12 weeks in a row.”
The best indicator of where Cronulla are at might be from their fans who again turned out in droves despite the cold weather, creating a pulsating atmosphere to help get the team over the line late in the second half.
Cronulla captain Paul Gallen, who put in another tireless performance, was thrilled with the support.
“Flano spoke about [the support] before the game. Coming from home and… there’s cars parked all down Captain Cook Drive. It took me an extra 10 minutes to get here because of all the traffic out the front,” he said.
“It’s a good feeling. Everyone loves a winner and we’re going alright at the moment.”
The Sharks were without star winger Valentine Holmes who was a late withdrawal with a hamstring strain, only for Sosaia Feki to make his timely return from a groin problem.
After a fortnight of speculation, Parramatta’s own star winger Semi Radradra played for the Eels as Michael Gordon returned to face his former club.
The Sharks started slowly and, after a couple of repeat sets, Parramatta had opened the scoring before Cronulla had touched the ball.
Bevan French scored in the corner from a deft Corey Norman grubber kick after five minutes and the young winger had his second try of the night eight minutes later.
A poor James Maloney pass along the ground bounced up into French’s arms allowing him to run 70 metres untouched to give Parramatta a 12-0 lead.
The Eels stormed to an 18-0 lead after 22 minutes when Danny Wicks barged over from close range.
Cronulla finally snapped out of their slump just before the half hour mark when Feki scored in the corner following a sweeping backline move.
The excellent Ricky Leutele scored out wide for Cronulla three minutes later from a pin point Wade Graham cut out pass before Gerard Beale put the Sharks right back in the game.
The former Kiwi international batted back a cross field kick for Jayson Bukuya who showed great strength to hold off two Parramatta defenders and offload for Beale to score in the corner.
A Maloney penalty goal on the stroke of half-time reduced Parramatta’s lead to 18-16 and five minutes into the second half Cronulla had surged into the lead.
Another shift to the left saw Leutele score his second try – though Parramatta would have felt hard done by after Ben Barba’s final pass looked to have gone forward.
The Eels could have regained the lead 10 minutes later only for Clint Gutherson to drop the ball just short of the try line after some quick thinking from French.
Cronulla could have extended their lead when Paul Gallen crashed over, only for referee Ashley Klein to penalise the Sharks skipper for a double movement.
A second try to Beale with 10 minutes to go after a clever short side raid from Chad Townsend looked to have sealed the points for Cronulla only for French to complete his hat-trick moments later and set up a nervy finish.
But Feki’s second try in the final minute finally sealed the points for Cronulla.
Leutele was forced off with a high ankle sprain midway through the second half but Flanagan was hopeful he and Holmes would be right to return next week.
The win also saw Cronulla retain the Johnny Mannah Cup played for in honour of the former Sharks and Eels forward who died after a battle with Hodgkin lymphoma in 2013.
Cronulla Sharks 34 (Sosaia Feki two, Ricky Leutele two, Gerard Beale two tries. James Maloney five goals)
Parramatta Eels 24 (Bevan French three, Danny Wicks tries. Michael Gordon four goals)
at Southern Cross Group Stadium
Crowd: 19, 142
Leader man of the match: Ricky Leutele (Sharks)
Sharks’ next three: Panthers (away), Roosters (away), Knights (home)
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