Raiders hold off epic Sharks fightback
CANBERRA shot out to a big early lead against Cronulla and the Sharks nearly pulled it back before a late rally got the Raiders home 22-20.
In a ferocious and sometimes spiteful game, the Sharks surged back into Thursday night's game against Canberra but agonisingly short.
Canberra led 20-0 midway through the first half but Cronulla battled back to 20-all before a late Canberra penalty goal gave the Raiders a 22-20 victory.
It was an enthralling game in the Canberra chill, the result leaving both sides on eight wins this season.
"We stuck at it, competed hard and got back in the game. It will be a tough loss to take actually," said Sharks five-eighth Shaun Johnson.
Canberra centre Nick Cotric hobbled from the field with suspected syndesmosis. He will have scans on Friday, his NSW chances damaged.
"We knew they'd come back and they did," said Canberra halfback Aidan Sezer.
The Raiders - aided by another fierce performance by Englishman John Bateman - have now won three games in a row without hooker Josh Hodgson.
With Prime Minister and Sharks fan Scott Morrison watching on, Cronulla roared back into the game with the benefit of six straight penalties.
Cronulla was shell-shocked when behind by 20 points but the Sharks settled, found some structure and the momentum swung.
The Sharks certainly have some firepower and aren't a team many would want to meet in a semi-final.
Cronulla conceded five penalties and fumbled the ball three times inside the opening 20 minutes. It was suddenly 20-0, Canberra enjoying nearly 80 per cent of possession inside the first 25 minutes.
"We got off to a really poor start," conceded Sharks fullback Matt Moylan.
Adding to the visitor's early woes, prop Andrew Fifita was placed on report for a crusher tackle on Canberra forward Ryan Sutton, who came from the field but did return.
Sharks centre Bronson Xerri came off midway through the first half with concussion and didn't return. Cronulla didn't receive their first penalty until the 28th minute.
This was Johnson's first game back from injury since round seven and he had some nice touches.
There were concerns breaking up the successful Chad Townsend-Kyle Flanagan halves combination would unsettle Cronulla's rhythm.
And would his demotion upset Flanagan, who has been linked to the Sydney Roosters?
"It wouldn't surprise me if he moves on," said former NSW five-eighth Braith Anasta.
Johnson worked well at times with right edge forward Briton Nikora.
This was Cronulla forward Wade Graham's second game back from a long-term ACL injury. Pre-game, it emerged Graham had suddenly become a genuine candidate for a NSW bench spot.
"It's great to see Wade Graham back in action," said NSW advisor Greg Alexander.
On Channel 9, Andrew Johns added: "Wade can play anywhere. With back, the Sharks look a really well balanced team."
Playing at a career-light 93kgs, Graham was the victim of a crusher tackle early from Bateman but played on.
This was Jarrod Croker's 244th NRL game - equalling second-placed Canberra great Laurie Daley.
Croker is now behind just one player - Jason Croker, a distant relative, who played 318 games. And there was another milestone for the Canberra skipper.
A 24th minute try equalled the all-time Canberra tryscoring record, again set by former star forward Jason, who scored 120 career tries.
Aidan Sezer won the Canberra halfback spot again ahead of Sam Williams. It seems like it will be a horses for courses rotation policy each week for the Raiders No.7 jumper.
Sezer starred against Wests Tigers last weekend and scored the opening try on Thursday night after 10 minutes but struggled later in the match as Canberra lacked direction, especially in the attacking 20.
CANBERRA 22 (J Croker A Sezer B Simonsson tries J Croker 5 goals) bt CRONULLA 20 (J Dugan 2 B Hamlin-Uele J Morris tries S Johnson 2 goals) at GIO Stadium. Referee: Ashley Klein, Peter Gough. Crowd: 10,021