Canberra sent a chilling warning through the NRL on Saturday after thrashing Cronulla, putting the teams immediately above them on notice that their finals charge is genuine and gathering steam.
The Raiders moved to within two points of eight-placed St George Illawarra with arguably their strongest performance of the season, one which resembled their form of 2016 when they finished second, rather than what has so far been an underwhelming 2017.
Coach Ricky Stuart will relish the two competition points his side desperately needed, but it’s the manner of victory that will give him the most satisfaction.
Saturday’s mauling of Cronulla had all the makings of what led Canberra to the preliminary final last season – their ball movement was willing and slick all over the park, their forwards were dominant and their back line looked threatening every time the ball was spun through their skilful fingers.
Compounding the misery for Cronulla, who still have work to do to wrap up a top-four finish, was what appeared to be a right shoulder injury to Jack Bird late in the game.
Should Penrith beat the Wests Tigers on Sunday, Canberra will finish the round still four points adrift of the finals standings, but with four matches still to play there is still enough time to slide into the play-offs. If they manage to pull that off, they will be the team every other finals contender wants to avoid.
This was a fiery clash between these two fierce rivals and both Cronulla Origin pair Andrew Fifita and Wade Graham were frustrated into giving away multiple penalties.
Yet it was Canberra’s Josh Papalii who irked the referees the most, earning 10 minutes in the bin midway through the second half for a professional foul on his old sparring partner Paul Gallen. Incredibly, the Raiders used the next 10 minutes, while down to 12 men, to ice the cake on this ninth win of the year.
Shark Jayson Bukuya dropped the ball cold just 20 metres out from the Raiders line off the first play after the penalty, and the Raiders were out of jail. Canberra then proceeded to kick three penalty goals while Papalii was in the bin.
It was an intriguing battle through the middle between the likes of Fifita, Graham and Gallen for Cronulla, and Shannon Boyd, Elliott Whitehead and Junior Paulo for the Raiders. But the defensive play of the night went to Canberra centre Joey Leilua, who yanked Ricky Leutele over the eastern touchline early in the second half in a scene reminiscent of the 2002 State Of Origin match when Gorden Tallis rag-dolled Brett Hodgson.
The Sharks started the better before 11,639 fans and their opening 15 minutes suggested this was going to be the home team’s night.
Canberra gave away three penalties early, which would have left Stuart fuming, and Sosaia Feki’s fourth-minute opener in the left corner came all too easily as the Raiders rushed up out wide to no avail.
Six minutes later the visitors were on the rack again after giving away a penalty on their own line, but the Sharks opted to give Valentine Holmes the shot at goal rather then putting Canberra to the sword.
That seemed to spark the Raiders into action, and Papalii kick-started the fightback when he crashed over the top of Bird and Chad Townsend from close range. Canberra then slotted their own penalty goal after Graham was called for a block on Elliott Whitehead, who was chasing through a Blake Austin bomb, and soon after the Raiders’ forwards had wrestled back the momentum.
Jordan Rapana’s first try came from another Austin bomb, and he jumped over Feki to put the Raiders in front. His second came via a Joey Leilua bullet which will go down as one of the passes of the season.
He picked the ball up from acting half and fired it perfectly from left to right out to Rapana, who was able to use the sideline to his advantage and reach out and ground the football. The Sharks had the numbers but were powerless to stop the latest piece of magic from Canberra’s dynamic centre-winger combination. When hooker Josh Hodgson took a Whitehead offload and ran through some flimsy defence by Bird and Luke Lewis on half-time, the margin stretched to 16 points at the main break.
“There were three tries that we should’ve handled,” Sharks coach Shane Flanagan lamented. “The lady down the corner shop would’ve known BJ Leilua was going to come out and pass to Rapana. We knew they were all coming, we just didn’t handle them. There’s 18 points that we just leaked in. It was all over after that.”