Cronulla have lost their sixth straight season opener, with the Sharks falling 14-8 to the Knights in Newcastle on Friday night.
The Sharks, who had won their previous eight matches against the Knights, lacked polish in attack despite an impressive defensive performance in a match blighted by handling errors and penalties.
Cronulla have now fallen in every season opener since the 2013 season, with new head coach John Morris suffering defeat in his first game in charge in the NRL.
Briton Nikora and Blayke Brailey made their NRL debuts for Cronulla, while Josh Morris and Shaun Johnson also made their first appearance in the black, white and blue as the Sharks began life without premiership-winning coach Shane Flanagan and star fullback Valentine Holmes.
Former Sharks Edrick Lee and Jesse Ramien running out for Newcastle with Lee one of the best on the field. The giant winger made a number of difficult defensive decisions, giving Josh Dugan a torrid night before scoring the match-winning try with an 85-metre intercept with five minutes to play to come back and haunt his old club.
Knights debutant David Klemmer was also strong, running for 186 metres from 20 carries and making 25 tackles.
A scoreless first half was the product of a game that featured 18 penalties and 22 errors.
The story of the first 40 minutes was one of Cronulla's excellent goal line defence and Newcastle failing to take their chances.
Time and again the Sharks showed impressive resilience on their own line to keep the Knights out when it appeared their defensive wall was about to be breached.
A strong wind out of the south made life difficult for both sides, the strength of which was underlined when Johnson's early torpedo punt from his own 10 metre line bounced dead in goal at the other end of the field.
Most of the attacking action came down the same side of the field - Newcastle's left with the threat of Ponga - and Cronulla's right with Johnson.
Sharks debutant Nikora enjoyed a strong start, coming up with a try-saving tackle on Lachlan Fitzgibbon. From the next play, Mitchell Pearce's cut out pass found Lee, only for the ball to dip to 196 centimetre tall Lee's ankles, with the winger only able to knock on just short of the try line.
The Knights went close again shortly after through a Pearce cross field kick. The loose ball was batted back into the field of play, only for Nikora to again clean up.
Newcastle thought they had opened the scoring when Shaun Kenny-Dowall came down with another Pearce high kick. Referee Peter Gough ruled a try on the field, only for the video referee bunker officials to overturn the decision after replays showed Kenny-Dowall had lost possession of the ball in attempting to ground it.
The Sharks looked to make the most of their let off when they finally ventured down Newcastle's end of the field only to waste the opportunity. On the back of a Jesse Ramien error 10m out after a tangle with Andrew Fifita, the giant prop received the ball standing at five-eighth off the scrum only to pass the ball slightly behind Johnson, causing an error.
Cronulla bombed another chance on the half hour mark when a lovely shift to the right saw Josh Dugan in space. But the former NSW centre held onto the ball instead of drawing and passing to the unmarked Sione Katoa outside him, with former teammate Lee forcing an error with his tackle.
The Sharks looked to have finally broken the deadlock three minutes into the second half only for Dugan's effort to eventually be disallowed. Connor Watson looked to have Dugan's early grubber kick covered before Katoa sneaked along the touch line before taking possession and finding Dugan on the inside. But replays showed Katoa had deliberately batted the ball forward to himself.
Cronulla did open the scoring with a Johnson penalty goal seven minutes into the second half. But the Sharks gifted the Knights the chance to level the scores almost immediately when Matt Moylan knocked the ball on from the kick off. An ensuing penalty after Johnson's shanked drop out allowed Ponga the easiest of two points.
Both sides created more half chances. A Kurt Mann grubber kick rolled tantalisingly out of the reach of Tim Glasby with Chad Townsend getting back desperately to bat the ball dead.
The Sharks then gambled and ran the ball on their last tackle on halfway. Pearce did brilliantly to get back and intercept Sosaia Feki's inside pass, only for Morris' earlier pass to be ruled forward.
The game waited 68 minutes for its first try. A delightful Pearce short pass found Glasby, who powered through Moylan's tackle to score next to the posts, just the 11th try of his career.
Cronulla hit back in controversial circumstances, leveling the scores with seven minutes to play.
Dugan raced through to ground a Johnson grubber kick. The referees awarded a try on the field but the video officials overturned the decision, ruling Dugan had lost possession of the ball.
But match officials also found Lee had tackled Katoa off the ball and denied him a chance at competing for it. A penalty try was ruled to Katoa, despite it seemingly unlikely he would have got to the ball. With the penalty try awarded, Lee then did not deny a try-scoring opportunity, so avoided spending the final seven minutes in the sin bin.
Johnson's conversion from in front set up a grand stand finish - and Lee delivered.
With the Sharks deep on the attack, Townsend danced across field before floating a long cut out pass into the arms of Lee.
Lee raced 85m to score under the posts, giving Newcastle a vital lead which they wouldn't surrender.
Newcastle Knights 14 (Tim Glasby, Edrick Lee tries. Kalyn Ponga two goals, penalty goal)
Cronulla Sharks 8 (Sione Katoa penalty try. Shaun Johnson goal, penalty goal)
at McDonald Jones Stadium, Newcastle
Leader man of the match: Edrick Lee (Knights)
Sharks' next three: Titans (home), Cowboys (away), Eels (away)