Cronulla will face a sudden death semi-final against Penrith after going down 21-12 to the Sydney Roosters in their qualifying final on Saturday night.
It was an outstanding contest befitting two of the best teams in the competition. Having finished level on the competition table, separated only by for and against, there was always going to be little between the sides.
And so it proved, with the lead changing hands four times before the Roosters eventually broke away late on for the nine-point victory.
The Sharks will now meet Penrith with their season on the line back at Moore Park on Friday night after the Panthers eliminated the New Zealand Warriors earlier in the night.
A win in that match would see Cronulla face a trip to Melbourne for a preliminary final against the Storm.
The minor premiers though will enjoy a week off before their own preliminary final.
A sea of blue failed to materialise at Allianz Stadium despite 15 bus loads of Sharks fans making their way over the Captain Cook Bridge, with a fairly even split in the stands between the 24,588 fans in attendance.
It was a case of missed opportunities for Cronulla, with Josh Dugan and Luke Lewis going close to scoring tries to give the Sharks the lead in the second half, only for desperate Roosters defending to keep them at bay.
Wade Graham may have also played his last game of the season after suffering a potentially serious knee injury early on.
Cronulla were in front inside five minutes. A Jared Waerea-Hargreaves error on halfway gifted the Sharks possession before they earned a repeat set.
Dugan attempted to grubber kick into the in-goal only for the ball to be blocked. Chad Townsend’s desperate dive kept possession with Cronulla, with the Sharks shifting left.
Graham ran at the line and flicked a pass to Ricky Leutele, whose quick hands allowed Sosaia Feki to touch down in the corner.
The Roosters took the lead on 14 minutes through a controversial Cooper Cronk try.
A Cronk grubber kick bounced back off Graham but as the second-rower attempted to recover his bobble, he appeared to be obstructed by a Roosters player with a bump, allowing Cronk to regather and score under the posts.
The Sharks had injury added to insult, with Graham looking to have twisted a heavily-strapped right knee. The representative back-rower was helped from the ground and played no further part in the match, continuing his luckless run with injury this season.
Cronulla drew level midway through the half thanks to a Holmes penalty goal after Townsend’s swirling bomb had caused confusion at the back for the Roosters resulting in a Daniel Tupou error.
The Sharks then missed a huge opportunity to take the lead. Another shift to the left involving Matt Moylan found Leutele. This time either the centre’s pass was behind Feki, or Feki had overrun it. Either way, the ball sailed over the touchline in what was a massive let off for the Tri Colours.
And they made Cronulla pay two minutes before half-time. A questionable penalty against Edrick Lee at the play-the-ball eventually saw the Roosters shift right for Joseph Manu to stretch out and score just before Holmes could get across in cover.
The Roosters took a 10-6 lead to the break, only for Cronulla to hit the front five minutes after the re-start.
Townsend showed great vision and exquisite touch to roll an early diagonal grubber kick behind Tupou, allowing Lee to race through and score his 12th try of the season.
Holmes’ sideline conversion gave Cronulla a slender lead before the Sharks went close again when Moylan touched down, only for Leutele’s bat back of a Townsend bomb to be ruled forward.
The game continued to see-saw with the Bondi boys edging their way back in front with half an hour to play.
Tupou leaped above Lee to bat back a cross-field Cronk kick. The ball landed safely in the arms of Latrell Mitchell who touched down before missing his conversion attempt from out wide.
Mitchell balked at his first attempt after a stick appeared to be thrown from a Cronulla supporters’ bay on the eastern side of the ground as he was about to move in.
Another tough call was to go against the Sharks, allowing the Roosters to extend their lead.
Townsend appeared to have tackled Jake Friend at dummy half, forcing Friend to drop the ball. But the match officials ruled Townsend had somehow knocked the ball on, gifting the Roosters a repeat set.
And the Tri Colours made the most of their good fortune, scoring from the ensuing set thanks to a gorgeous cut out pass form Tedesco to Tupou who slid over in the corner.
Cronulla butchered a golden chance to draw level after a tidy set play saw Holmes break the Roosters’ line, only for the fullbacks pass to be thrown slightly behind Dugan.
The Sharks went close again, this time through Lewis from an early Townsend grubber. Only for Mitchell to somehow get back and strip the ball from Lewis, forcing a knock on.
And the Roosters would once again make Cronulla pay, with Cronk slotting the match-sealing field goal from the next set.
A Mitchell penalty goal widened the margin further as the Roosters held on for a dogged victory.
Sydney Roosters 21 (Cooper Cronk, Joseph Manu, Latrell Mitchell, Daniel Tupou tries. Latrell Mitchell two goals. Cooper Cronk field goal)
Cronulla Sharks 12 (Sosaia Feki, Edrick Lee tries. Valentine Holmes two goals)
at Allianz Stadium, Moore Park
Leader man of the match: Cooper Cronk (Roosters)
Sharks’ next game: Penrith Panthers elimination semi-final at Allianz Stadium next Friday.