Cronulla have produced arguably their best performance of the season to down Melbourne 17-14.
The Sharks were staring down the barrel of a third straight defeat on Sunday which would have all but ended their top four hopes.
But a superb first half performance and equally gutsy display after half-time saw Cronulla continue their impressive record against the Storm, with the Sharks scoring their fifth win from their last seven matches against the defending premiers.
A glass-half-empty kind of Sharks fan might wonder how a side capable of this performance had conspired to lose their last two games to Brisbane and Manly.
But this victory should convince the doubters than Cronulla, at their best, remain a genuine premiership threat. It was as brave as any of their wins in their historic run to the 2016 premiership. The Sharks had to do without Wade Graham, lost to a knee injury at half-time, and battle against a lopsided 12-5 penalty count against a Storm side on their home patch at AAMI Park.
Cronulla made their intentions clear in the second minute when they went close to opening the scoring.
Josh Dugan chased down the right wing to leap above Josh Addo-Carr and field a Chad Townsend bomb. The former NSW representative caught and passed almost in one motion to Luke Lewis, only for Storm fullback Billy Slater to get across and dislodge the ball before Lewis could get to the try line.
A number of errors from both sides plagued the opening stages before the excellent Jayden Brailey crossed for the first try.
The Sharks earned a penalty on the back of a strong Paul Gallen run. Quick thinking from Cronulla’s captain saw Gallen take a quick tap before Graham’s quick play the ball allowed Brailey to scoot from dummy half.
The young hooker showed great pace and power to slice between four Storm defenders and slam the ball down next to the posts.
Melbourne hit back midway through the first half through Suliasi Vunivalu. The giant Storm winger crossed on the back of a number of Storm penalties after a slick backline shift to the right involving Slater and Will Chambers.
Cronulla extended their lead when Valentine Holmes crossed for his 19th try of the season four minutes from half-time.
Sosaia Feki, back in the team on the left wing at the expense of Sione Katoa, did brilliantly to get outside Vunivalu before tip-toeing down the touch line. Feki flung the ball back inside to Holmes and, while match officials said the pass floated forward, allowed Holmes to touch down under the posts.
The four-pointer saw Holmes equal his 2016 and David Peachey’s 1999 tallies of tries for the Sharks with three regular season games remaining.
Townsend added a field goal two minutes before the break to give Cronulla a 13-4 half-time lead.
Wade Graham won’t be back today after right knee injury in this tackle. By video appeared to be impact injury (contusion) to medial knee, strapping is for injury to this area. Reported as injury to “attachment at the back of the knee” but clear of ligament injury #NRLStormSharkspic.twitter.com/kbxeqy3rmf— NRL PHYSIO (@nrlphysio) August 12, 2018
Graham had suffered a clash of knees and succumbed to the knock just before half-time, with the representative back-rower unable to continue in the second half.
The news got worse for Cronulla when Melbourne hit back five minutes after the restart.
Cameron Munster grubber kicked for Slater to touch down, with Cameron Smith’s conversion reducing the deficit to three points.
Melbourne could sense the two points were there for the taking and hit Cronulla with wave after wave of attacks. But the Sharks held firm on their own line, repelling the Storm time and again.
Dugan and Jesse Ramien did brilliantly to deny former young Shark Curtis Scott from scoring in the corner, before Ramien and Holmes produced an incredible effort to somehow keep Joe Stimson from giving Melbourne the lead.
And Cronulla would earn themselves some breathing space when Ramien produced one of the plays of the day. With Melbourne attacking Cronulla’s line, the young centre swooped on a loose pass to race almost 80 metres before he was dragged down.
Dugan then scooped up the ball from dummy half and powered over four Melbourne defenders to score to give the Sharks sight of victory.
Melbourne refused to quit, with Vunivalu scoring his second wide out with eight minutes remaining.
But just like those dying stages of Cronulla’s famous 2016 grand final win over Melbourne, the Sharks held on score a deserved win.
The message is clear to the rest of the NRL. Write off Cronulla at your own peril. With their ominous forward pack bolstered by the impressive Aaron Woods, the Sharks have shown they have the strike to hurt teams.
Matt Moylan is playing some of his best football. Holmes is arguably the most dangerous player in the game at the moment.
And the Sharks, written off by many this season, are all of a sudden circling.
Cronulla Sharks 17 (Jayden Brailey, Valentine Holmes, Josh Dugan tries. Valentine Holmes two goals. Chad Townsend field goal)
Melbourne Storm 14 (Suliasi Vunivalu two, Billy Slater tries. Cameron Smith goal)
at AAMI Park, Melbourne
Leader man of the match: Chad Townsend (Sharks)
Sharks’ next three: Cowboys (home), Knights (home), Bulldogs (away)