Cronulla hadn’t beaten a top-eight side all year, but you wouldn’t have known it after a clinical first-half display.
Finishing the half with 64% possession, 79% territory, and an 85% completion rate, the Sharks smelt blood from the get-go.
Braden Hamlin-Uele drove Semi Valemei into his own in-goal early, and his teammates followed suit, keeping Canberra in their own 20 for the next set.
Chad Townsend failed to turn Cronulla’s dominance into a try, but was able to put two points on the board after a penalty occurred in the lead up to his missed grounding.
Starved of field position, Canberra was potent with their first attacking set. Nick Cotric was held just short by a school of Sharks, before Joseph Tapine maneuvered his way out of a four-man tackle to plant the ball under the posts.
Connor Tracey inspired Cronulla’s retaliation, breaking Jordan Rapana’s tackle and throwing a deceiving dummy to open space for Ronaldo Mulitalo, who zeroed in on the left corner and couldn’t be stopped.
Mulitalo makes the most of Cronulla's fast start
A penalty soon after allowed Chad Townsend to make amends for his missed conversion and put Cronulla ahead by two.
The Sharks’ suffocating tackling and relentless territorial stronghold culminated in an opportunistic Blayke Brailey try, after Elliott Whitehead dropped the ball cold 10 metres from his own line.
Canberra was being comprehensively outplayed with their backs against the wall, but George Williams turned the game on its head with a magical try. Having read Wade Graham’s pass better than the Sharks, Williams intercepted and dashed from inside his own half to put the Raiders within four points against all odds heading into half-time.
As they so often do, Canberra, who never appeared worried despite the circumstances, entered the second half a new side. Led by their spine – Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad (179 run metres), Jack Wighton (two tries), and Williams (two tries) – the Raiders completed a 26-point turnaround to cruise home 32-20 victors.
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Early in the second-half, Cronulla’s number nine crisis went from bad to worse. With Blayke Brayley already forced from the field, stand-in hooker Scott Sorensen sustained a left ankle injury, only making their task harder.
With trademark Raiders desperation, Mulitalo was bought down despite looking a certainty to score, keeping Canberra’s momentum intact. It proved decisive.
An intuitive tap-and-go from Jack Wighton miraculously put Canberra in front, but not without controversy. Andrew Fifita was penalised for a ruck infringement, and Wade Graham immediately challenged the decision, except you can’t challenge ruck infringements, and Wighton was able to waltz through a confused Sharks line untouched.
Wighton is making a habit of being the Raiders' spark
Now accustomed to sparking the Raiders, it was Wighton again proving pivotal, this time soaring to meet Williams’ pin-point chip and landing in the in-goal. Canberra found themselves with an eight-point lead against all odds, seeming to score nearly every time they threatened the Sharks’ line.
Cronulla refused to say die, barrelling the scrum over to force a Williams knock-on in a potential momentum shifter. But it was Williams who pushed the Sharks further out of the game, crossing the stripe after a storming Hudson Young run down the sideline a few phases earlier.
Jarrod Croker stabbed a grubber to the in-goal under pressure, and Whitehead reaped the rewards, making it five unanswered Raiders tries. It capped a clinical Canberra comeback that sets up a mouth-watering semi-final against the Sydney Roosters.
Replicating Williams’ first-half heroics, Sione Katoa ran the length of the field off an intercept to pick up a consolation try. It was far too little far too late, Cronulla unable to cash in on a commanding first-half, but were valiant in defeat.