Cronulla Sharks stand up on big stage to destroy Wests Tigers 25-8 and reach 2019 NRL finals

Sharks winger Ronaldo Mulitalo celebrates with his Cronulla teammates on Sunday. Picture: NRL/Twitter
Sharks winger Ronaldo Mulitalo celebrates with his Cronulla teammates on Sunday. Picture: NRL/Twitter

Cronulla have qualified for the NRL finals for the fifth consecutive year after producing one of their strongest performances of the season to down the Wests Tigers 25-8 on Sunday.

The Sharks have endured a roller coaster season but saved their best for the biggest occasion of the campaign so far, an ominous thought for the remaining teams in the competition.

The equation was simple - the winner finished seventh and would book a place in the finals. The loser would finish ninth and could start dreaming about 2020.

The Tigers seemingly had it all going for them. A sold out crowd packed into a sunny Leichhardt Oval on what was a perfect example of suburban rugby league at its best. Robbie Farah made a miraculous recovery from a broken leg, with the Tigers favourite a late inclusion on the hosts' bench for what turned out to be his final game for the joint venture club.

It was a sold out crowd of almost 20,000 that packed into Leichhardt Oval on Sunday. Picture: NRL/Twitter

It was a sold out crowd of almost 20,000 that packed into Leichhardt Oval on Sunday. Picture: NRL/Twitter

Paul Gallen's career though will continue for at least another week, with the Sharks captain to reach NRL game No.348 against Manly in an elimination final at Brookvale Oval. He even sealed Cronulla's fine afternoon with the first field goal of his career with 30 seconds to play.

Gallen had said it would be embarrassing if the Sharks failed to reach the finals given the quality of their roster. But that scenario is not one Cronulla will need to contemplate, with rookie coach John Morris leading the Sharks to the post-season at the first attempt despite a season littered by injuries to a number of his stars.

The win was Cronulla's sixth in a row against the Wests Tigers, with the Sharks welcoming back Shaun Johnson, Sosaia Feki and Jack Williams from injury. Josh Dugan also overcame concussion to start at fullback, though Matt Moylan remained absent with his hamstring problem.

The Tigers opened the scoring with a penalty goal before Ronaldo Mulitalo had what would have been an incredible try chalked off for a knock on. The rookie winger had regathered his own chip kick on the final tackle, grubber kicked again for himself and regained the loose ball, only to drop the ball over the try line.

Cronulla came up with a number of huge plays in the opening quarter of the game to set the tone for the afternoon. Andrew Fifita produced a one on one steal, Chad Townsend went close to scoring and Mulitalo smashed Luke Brooks in a heavy tackle before Townsend produced Cronulla's first 40-20 kick of the season.

The Sharks scored the opening try on the back of Townsend's brilliant play midway through the first half. Briton Nikora's superb solo effort which included a jink and a step close to the line saw the young back-rower cross for his seventh try of a glittering debut season.

Cronulla's defence was outstanding, forcing the Tigers to opt for another penalty goal to level the score five minutes before half-time, only for the Sharks to take a 6-4 lead to the break with a penalty goal of their own.

But as tense as the first half had been, the Sharks blew the Tigers away with three tries in five minutes after half-time.

Johnson engaged defenders with a dart across field before poking a grubber kick into the in-goal for Josh Morris to touch down.

A penalty then allowed the Sharks to march down field. Williams produced a miraculous flick pass offload for Wade Graham to shift left, with Bronson Xerri's quick hands helping Feki to score in the corner.

Feki had his second try moments later. This time it was on the back of a strong Williams run and failed attempted strip from the Tigers, with Jayden Brailey scooping up the loose ball. Townsend fired a cut out pass left, with Xerri again setting up Feki who produced a strong finish.

Luke Garner's try on the hour mark gave the Tigers a glimmer of hope after he strolled between Nikora and Johnson untouched to race 50 metres and score.

The Tigers kept pushing to close the gap with the introduction of Farah, but Cronulla were as tough, disciplined and committed in defence as they have been all season to comfortably hold them out, with Gallen's late one-pointer sealing a memorable afternoon for the Sharks.

Leader Scoreboard

Cronulla Sharks 25 (Sosaia Feki two, Briton Nikora, Josh Morris tries. Shaun Johnson four goals. Paul Gallen field goal)

defeated

Wests Tigers 8 (Luke Garner try. Paul Momirovski two goals)

at Leichhardt Oval

Crowd: 19,491

Leader man of the match: Chad Townsend (Sharks)

Sharks' next game: NRL finals week one elimination final vs Manly at Brookvale Oval

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