Cronulla have continued their fine record in the nation’s capital, downing Canberra 24-16 on Sunday to maintain their place in the top eight.
The Sharks, already without Josh Dugan, Wade Graham and Luke Lewis through injury, had to overcome the late withdrawals of Paul Gallen and Jayson Bukuya due to a knee injury and a virus respectively.
That prompted a new-look Cronulla forward pack led by inspirational captain Andrew Fifita. Jack Williams was named to make his NRL debut from the bench, with former Cowboys forward Braden Uele named to make his first appearance in the black, white and blue.
Valentine Holmes, Chad Townsend and Fifita were outstanding for Cronulla who have now won their last six matches at GIO Stadium.
Canberra took the lead completely against the run of play after seven minutes when Holmes dallied on an Elliott Whitehead kick into the in-goal area, allowing Nick Cotric to sneak around Holmes to score.
But Holmes went from villain to hero less than two minutes later. The Sharks fullback did well to field a swirling Blake Austin bomb 20 metres out from his own line. A step and a shuffle then quickly had him through Canberra’s line, allowing Holmes to race 80m to score under the posts.
The Raiders took back the lead on the half hour mark but it came at a cost. Austin slipped through to score under the posts but was forced off with a potentially serious lower-leg injury after becoming stuck in an awkward position under Fifita.
Austin would not return but Canberra went into half-time with a 16-8 lead thanks to two Jarrod Croker penalty goals.
The Sharks improved in the second half and hit back through Williams. The NRL debutant scored his first try in the top grade against his former club 15 minutes after the break when Holmes batted back a James Segeyaro grubber kick.
Cronulla hit the lead for the first time with 14 minutes left on the clock. A shift to the left involving Townsend and Matt Moylan ended when Joseph Paulo hit Sosaia Feki with a quality cut out pass, with the winger speeding down the touchline to score in the corner.
The Raiders pushed to take back the lead but Cronulla defended resolutely. Segeyaro gifted them one last attack with two minutes remaining after attempting to milk a penalty by throwing a pass from dummy half into a Canberra player, only to throw the ball out of play and hand the Raiders possession on halfway.
But Segeyaro made up for his error, intercepting a Canberra pass 20m out from his own line before streaking down field. The replacement hooker then found Holmes who raced the rest of the journey to seal an important two competition points for Cronulla. It was Holmes’ 50th try in 89 appearances for the club, becoming the second fastest player to 50 tries for Cronulla behind Mat Rogers.
Cronulla return home to Shark Park when they host Canterbury next Sunday having maintained their place in the top eight.
Cronulla Sharks 24 (Valentine Holmes two, Jack Williams, Sosaia Feki tries. Chad Townsend four goals)
Canberra Raiders 16 (Nick Cotric, Blake Austin tries. Jarrod Croker four goals)
at GIO Stadium, Canberra
Leader man of the match: Valentine Holmes (Sharks)
Sharks’ next three: Bulldogs (home), Knights (away), Rabbitohs (away)