Andrew Fifita carried Cronulla to the top of the NRL table with a starring performance in his side’s 20-12 win over Manly on Saturday night.
Just two days before NSW State of Origin coach Laurie Daley names his team for game one, the Blues hopeful staked a late claim for a jumper with a game-high 202 metres, five offloads and five tackle busts.
The victory extends the Sharks’ winning run to eight and lifts them past title favourites Brisbane and North Queensland into top spot before next week’s bye.
Down in confidence and on the scoreboard at the break, Manly came out a different side and looked like pulling off an upset when tries to Jamie Buhrer and Brayden Wiliame levelled the scores.
However the re-introduction of Fifita off the bench sparked the Sharks back to life, with one carry from a restart earning his team a penalty goal to take the lead in the 64th minute.
Fullback Ben Barba then sealed the win with a try eight minutes later.
The accurate goalkicking of Maloney, almost a certainty to be recalled to the NSW team for State of Origin I, proved the difference on a night counterpart Jamie Lyon sprayed all three of his attempts.
Lyon hadn’t missed a shot since round four.
Dylan Walker, shifted to the centres pre-game with Lyon moving to five-eighth, appeared to have given his team the lead for the first time when he chased a 68th minute Daly Cherry-Evans bomb.
However the bunker ruled Barba had been impeded by Brett Stewart in the lead-up.
Cronulla had earlier dominated most of the first half, cruising to a 12-0 lead courtesy of tries to Sosaia Feki and Valentine Holmes before Tom Trbojevic pegged one back on the stroke of halftime.
Holmes’ try, his tenth of the season, drew him level with Brisbane pivot Anthony Milford at the top of league’s tryscoring chart.