A James Maloney penalty goal has sealed a thrilling 16-14 comeback victory for Cronulla over Canberra that puts them within a win of the NRL grand final.
Without injured skipper Paul Gallen and after losing Wade Graham to concussion minutes into Saturday night’s contest, the stunned Sharks were staring into a 12-0 hole at GIO Stadium.
“I thought I’d killed a Chinaman,” Sharks coach Shane Flanagan said.
“I thought our bad luck had come at the wrong time of the year.”
But the visitors bravely fought their way back, managing to keep their line in tact for the final hour and crossing the Raiders’ twice before Maloney calmly slotted the 75th-minute kick to silence the sellout 25,292 crowd.
Cronulla now get a week off and wait for the winner of next week’s semi-final between last year’s grand finalists Brisbane and North Queensland.
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.
Coach Ricky Stuart said he would name Hodgson along with injured pivot Blake Austin this week but it would be “unlikely” Hodgson would take his place.
Canberra were relentless for the opening half hour and seemed destined to equal a club-record 11 straight wins.
Big men Josh Papalii, Shannon Boyd and Joey Leilua made plenty of early inroads, including one Leilua run that left Graham dazed in the seventh minute.
It was the Raiders’ little men however that had the Sharks in a spin, with Hodgson poking through under the posts in the 13th minute and Jordan Rapana racing 80 metres five minutes later.
The white-hot Raiders had the chasing Sharks at their mercy.
But Cronulla slowly stemmed the tide, defending numerous raids on their line and pegging the advantage back a minute before halftime through the most unlikely of sources in tradesman-like forward Matt Prior.
Veteran Luke Lewis got the Sharks within two when he grubbered through for Valentine Holmes’ 19th try of the year before Maloney set up a grandstand finish with his 66th penalty shot.
Raiders pivot Aidan Sezer had a chance to nail a field goal in the 73rd minute but fired wide and soon after, Canberra second-rower Elliot Whitehead’s high shot on Ben Barba delivered Maloney his opportunity to steal one of the Shark’s most famous wins.
“The try before half-time was a soft try. We let ourselves down in that moment,” Raiders coach Ricky Stuart lamented.
“The conditions probably played a big part and didn’t let us play a lot of the footy that we have been playing of late. But that’s all about experience and working to the scenarios and environment.
“We probably could’ve handled it better but we didn’t.”