Cronulla cashed in on a horrific spear tackle from Seb Kris to put a 12-man Raiders side to the sword 24-6 on Sunday and seal a home elimination final.
The crucial final-round clash at Shark Park was an enthralling contest for the first 58 minutes that could have gone either way but Kris was rightly marched by referee Grant Atkins for a dangerous hit on opposing winger Sione Katoa.
After defusing a bomb, Katoa was lifted and driven head-first into the turf by Kris who was promptly banished and is likely to be suspended for Canberra’s elimination final against Newcastle.
The Sharks will take on the Roosters on Saturday night after sealing sixth spot while the Raiders missed the chance to steal hosting rights in the opening round of the playoffs and will instead head north on Sunday to face the red-hot Knights, riding high on a nine-game winning streak.
Raiders coach Ricky Stuart claimed he didn’t get a good enough look at the incident to know if Kris deserved to be sent off but captain Elliott Whitehead conceded that it was worthy of the maximum punishment.
Cronulla coach Craig Fitzgibbon said: “obviously he didn’t mean it. It’s not like he was trying to drive his head into the ground. It happens in the game but it’s not up to me to deal with it.”
Canberra entered the match with a remarkable nine-game winning sequence of their own in clashes against Cronulla and they continued where they left off in the fourth minute with the first try of the match.
Jordan Rapana outleapt opposing fullback Connor Tracey in a No.1 on No.1 contest for a bomb to touch down in his 200th NRL appearance.
Tracey exacted his revenge in the 15th minute when he chimed into the Cronulla backline to create an overlap on the right edge to send Jesse Ramien over.
Rapana again turned into Air Jordan to reel in another high kick late in the first half and claim a second try but he fumbled the ball as he reached out to score in Nicho Hynes’ last-ditch tackle.
The Sharks again dodged a bullet when Zac Woolford looked set to score when he pounced on a grubber from short range but opposing hooker Blayke Brailey just managed to toe the ball over the dead-ball line for the hosts to remain 6-4 down at the interval.
Cronulla hit the front in the 53rd minute when Siosifa Talakai skittled several defenders and Jack Williams sidestepped through the middle on the next play.
The momentum was all with the Sharks after the Kris send-off with Braydon Trindall pouncing on a grubber that Rapana messed up for a 14-6 buffer at the mid-point of the second half.
Ronaldo Mulitalo all but sealed the result when he dived over in the 64th minute for his 21st try of the season as the depleted Green Machine started running out of horsepower.
After botching a conversion from next to the posts for his own try, Trindall nailed the sideline strike for a 20-6 advantage.
Katoa, thankfully unharmed despite his unwanted thud into the turf, scampered over to complete the scoring nine minutes from full-time.
Kris is unlikely to play again this season depending on the grading dished out by the match review committee, opening the door for retiring club legend Jarrod Croker to play one more match or Albert Hopoate to be recalled to the outside backs.
“It could have been so different,” Stuart lamented, pointing to a Jack Wighton near-miss and Rapana’s bounced try-scoring effort. “You do need a little bit of luck in this game.
“I don’t know if anyone knows we’re in the finals. We weren’t meant to be. I’m that proud of these blokes – they’ve exceeded everybody’s expectations.”
When asked if he took anything out of their recent 28-6 loss to Newcastle leading into their elimination final, Stuart responded “yeah, we were shocking”.
These Sharks are not furious maneaters but they stalk their prey before pouncing when a weakness presents itself.
Cronulla’s record against top-eight opponents in recent years has been poor and they will not be given much hope of lasting too long in the finals.
After they went out the back door with two successive losses in last year’s playoffs, they have bounced back to be in the finals equation all season and bounced back from three straight losses to steady the ship in the past month.
When their Sunday stoush with the Raiders was an even contest they were the slightly superior side before the floodgates opened late when Kris was marched.
The only way Cronulla can eradicate their reputation for being flat-track bullies is to beat elite competition and they get their chance on home turf against a Roosters side which has finished the season with a wet sail.
They finished the win over the Raiders with a concern over fullback Connor Tracey after he suffered a knee injury which Fitzgibbon said could be something serious or nothing at all. Hynes, who finished the match at fullback, could be an option to play there against the Roosters with first-choice No.1 Will Kennedy still out with a hamstring problem.
Fitzgibbon said the side “hit the skids” in the latter stages of the season before regrouping in the past month.
For Fitzgibbon he will be going up against his former long-time mentor Trent Robinson in their playoff against the Roosters.
“It’s a good opportunity for us and our club. Any semi you play is a privilege because you’ve earned the right through a lot of work and sacrifice,” he said.