A 75th-minute penalty goal from James Maloney has taken Cronulla to a memorable 16-14 comeback win over Canberra and within one game of the NRL grand final.
Maloney kept dreams of a maiden premiership alive on Saturday evening when he calmly broke a 14-14 deadlock with a 25-metre shot after Raiders second-rower Elliot Whitehead was pinged for a high tackle.
It was a brave effort from the Sharks, who had captain Paul Gallen ruled out on game day with a back injury and then lost second-rower Wade Graham seven minutes into the match.
They also fell behind 12-0 after 20 minutes, and appeared to be at the mercy of a white-hot Raiders side who had all the early momentum in front of the sellout 25,292 home crowd at GIO Stadium.
But the Sharks held the home side to just two points for the final hour to get a week.
The Raiders host the winner of Sunday’s Penrith-Canterbury elimination final, however nervously await the status of star hooker Josh Hodgson, who came off with a second-half ankle injury.
Cronulla were trailing 14-6 when veteran Luke Lewis set up Valentine Holmes’ 19th try of the season with a precise 49th-minute grubber.
Maloney levelled the game with a penalty goal in the 66th minute.
Sharks coach Shane Flanagan also made the shock move of benching halfback Chad Townsend for the first time this year, shifting centre Jack Bird into a playmaking role in the second half.
And the move paid off, with the Sharks straightening their attack and flat-footing the Raiders’ defence in a second half that was spent mostly on Canberra’s goalline.
Raiders pivot Aidan Sezer had a chance to nail a field goal in the 73rd minute, but fired wide, leaving the door open for the Sharks to surge upfield and secure victory.
Canberra were relentless for the opening half hour.
Big men Josh Papalii, Shannon Boyd and Joey Leilua made plenty of early inroads into the Sharks’ defence, including one Leilua run that left Graham dazed in the seventh minute.
But while the crowd were enthralled with the Raiders’ power game, it was the little man in Hodgson who poked his way through under the posts.
The Dally M contender stood up tiring Sharks Andrew Fifita and Luke Capewell, and momentarily lost the ball before retrieving it for first points.
Leilua’s presence was again felt for his side’s second try, running Ben Barba off his chase of Jordan Rapana’s breakaway 80-metre try in the 18th minute.