With finals still on the cards for both the Wests Tigers and Cronulla, Saturday afternoon clashes didn’t come much bigger.
Sitting 13th and 10th respectively, a win was a must for both sides.
And it was Wests who struck early through Michael Chee Kam, a trio of Sharks were unable to stop the centre as he forced his way over the line.
The superb vision of Braydon Trindall ensured Cronulla’s reply was timely, picking out Sione Katoa on the left edge with a pinpoint pass. And it was Trindall’s conversion that handed his side a two-point advantage following Wests’ missed attempt.
Channeling the vision of his fellow half, third-gamer Luke Metcalf unfurled a pearler of a floater to ease Ronaldo Mulitalo onto the scoresheet.
Trailing by six, the Tigers were under siege late in the half, but a high-risk Moses Mbye play in his own in-goal brought them some respite.
Unfortunately it would be short-lived, with William Kennedy timing his release to perfection to ensure clean air between Mulitalo and the in-goal, extending Cronulla’s advantage to two converted tries heading into half-time.
The Sharks picked up where they left off after the break, courtesy of a barnstorming Mulitalo who shrugged off countless tackles as he took the Steeden from his own 20 to the backfield.
Astoundingly, Mulitalo disregarded the hat-trick that beckoned and handed support runner Metcalf his first NRL try in a beautiful act of selflessness.
Zeroing in on the middle third, the Tigers looked to keep the flickering flame that was their season alive, and the potent footwork of Adam Doueihi took them one step closer to reigning in the Sharks’ lead.
Contentiously however, the Bunker found an illegal hold in the scrum from Kelma Tuiagi that infringed on Teig Wilton’s ability to tackle Doueihi. Try disallowed, and the orange and black outcry that ensued fell on deaf ears.
Wests found themselves in a dangerous position again, but were hindered by a first-tackle error.
Smelling blood, the Sharks went in for the kill through Kennedy who got the ball he gave from Katoa as the pair sliced the Tigers’ defence open.
Their finals chances were fading fast, but Wests refused to lie down.
Tom Amone paved the way for a hard-fought try when he stole the ball from Mulitalo’s grasp, with Ken Maumalo the one to cross the line.
Unable to deal with Trindall’s high-ball, the Tigers watched their season slip through their fingers as Mulitalo’s contest sent the ball into the path of a try-bound Wilton.
With time now against them, Wests once again revived their dimming finals chances through Tommy Talau, with Doueihi’s conversion putting them within 18.
Three tries in 15 minutes was the equation.
And just minutes later Kelma Tuilagi inched the Tigers four points closer, unfortunately Doeuihi couldn’t convert, but Cronulla’s lead was cut to 14.
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The Tigers’ finals hopes were extinguished once more, this time for good as Matt Moylan broke the line and sent Metcalf over for his double.
Unforgiving, Cronulla piled on the pain late through last gasp tries to Kennedy and Katoa.
Katoa’s four-pointer took the Sharks over the coveted half-century milestone for the first time since 2016.
For all the good that came within Cronulla’s triumph, including being elevated into eighth position for the time being, their afternoon was soured by a suspected broken jaw to Mulitalo, who was seen leaving Browne Park with tears welling in his eyes.
An instrumental piece of the Sharks’ line-up, it’ll be interesting to see how Cronulla perform in his absence.
On the other side of the coin, it’s more heartbreak for the Wests faithful, as another tale of ‘so close yet so far’ sees their finals-less streak extend beyond a decade.