Cronulla have been dragged back into the dog fight for a top four finish after falling 30-12 to Canberra on Saturday night.
The Sharks suffered their sixth loss in 11 home games at Southern Cross Group Stadium this season – a far cry from their 2016 form when they made the shire a fortress, losing only once on the way to their maiden premiership.
Cronulla slip to fourth place, level on points with third-placed Brisbane and fifth-placed Parramatta. The in-form Eels are breathing down the Sharks’ necks and, with Parramatta hosting last-placed Newcastle and Cronulla traveling north to face the Broncos on Friday night, the Sharks are now in real danger of slipping out of the top four.
The loss also comes ahead of a torrid month for Cronulla. After their round 23 clash with Brisbane the Sharks continue their Queensland road trip with a clash against the Cowboys in Townsville before hosting fellow heavyweights the Sydney Roosters.
To make matters worse, Cronulla lost Jack Bird to what appeared to be a shoulder injury in the dying stages.
Cronulla started quickly and had the lead inside five minutes. A slick shift to the left featuring a classy catch and pass from Ricky Leutele allowed the Sharks’ leading try-scorer Sosaia Feki to stroll over for his 13th of the season.
A Valentine Holmes penalty goal extended the lead to 8-0 before Canberra hit back through a Josh Papalii try, with the giant back-rower producing a strong charge close to the line to barge over.
A Jarrod Croker penalty goal leveled the score before the Raiders hit the front. Feki failed to defuse a Blake Austin crossfield kick, allowing Jordan Rapana to touch down.
Canberra extended their lead five minutes before half-time after Wade Graham was penalised for a lifting tackle on Nick Cotric. The Raiders marched downfield from the ensuing penalty with Rapana diving over for his second try after a sharp blind side pass from Joey Leilua out of dummy half caught the Sharks’ left side defence asleep.
The Green Machine weren’t finished, with Josh Hodgson slicing through to blow Canberra’s lead out to 24-8 at the break.
Cronulla started their comeback 10 minutes into the second half with Gerard Beale finishing off a long-range try. Holmes broke through the line before appearing to have the ball knocked out of his grasp and into the arms of Bird. Bird continued downfield before finding Beale with a long cutout pass while on his way to the ground.
The Sharks were given a further boost when Papalii was sent to the sin bin for a professional foul after failing to retreat 10 metres after Paul Gallen had taken a quick tap close to Canberra’s line. But just as the bulk of the 11,639 fans finally found their voice with the dismissal of Papalli, a Jayson Bukuya dropped ball from the tap re-start completely killed Cronulla’s momentum.
It was to change the game, with Canberra piggy-backed up field with two penalties and extending their lead to beyond two scores with a Croker penalty goal.
Another pair of Croker penalty goals had the Raiders back out to a 30-12 lead as Canberra masterfully overcame the loss of Papalli. It was impressive game management from Canberra as Cronulla failed to take possession of the ball in the 10 minutes the Queensland forward was off the field.
Luke Lewis was denied a late try when Graham was ruled to have impeded Austin, much to the displeasure of the home fans.
Canberra Raiders 30 (Jordan Rapana two, Josh Papalii, Josh Hodgson tries. Jarrod Croker six goals)
Cronulla Sharks 12 (Sosaia Feki, Gerard Beale tries. Valentine Holmes three goals)
at Southern Cross Group Stadium
Leader man of the match: Josh Hodgson (Raiders)
Sharks’ next three: Broncos (away), Cowboys (away), Roosters (home)