The Cronulla Sharks are the absolute masters of the grind. This week, the victim was the St George Illawarra Dragons. The Sharks doing enough to keep in touch and when the pressure was on with a minute to go coming up with the big play to score the try and send the game into overtime. Sharks getting home 18-16 after grabbing a penalty seconds into Golden Point off a Jason Ryles brain explosion.
There was a big question mark over the Sharks going into this one, injuries and suspension had robbed the shire boys of their best players and if you read the newspapers, the Dragons were playing for contracts – with many stars keen to impress ahead of Wayne Bennetts arrival in 2009.
With both sides starting confidently, it was always going to be a game of completion and strict discipline. The return of Lance Thompson for the Sharks had immediate effect, the veteran blood nut showed his intention from his first hit up. Thompson hitting the line hard and popping a nice ball to Kearney, the Sharks looking dangerous.
For the Dragons, they were playing plenty of second phase footy in the first half. Their forwards were getting good metres, but their play the ball probably needed a little more speed – credit to the Sharks here for keeping a lid on the ruck.
As Soward and Chase threatened, it was Mark Gasnier who was causing problems for the Sharks outwide. While being marked heavily, when Gaz got the ball he would shimmey and step every time giving Cronulla defenders nightmares – the threat ringing true early on, with Gaz beating several defenders and flicking to Morris from 5m out and the son of slippery sliding in to score in the corner.
As they usually do, the Dragons looked like they could go on with this in a big way. But, the Sharks secured possession and on the back of some penalties they were down in good field position and peppering the Dragons own line. On a few occasions Bird and co went within millimeters of scoring, but remaining patience the Sharks eventually went in after some nice angle running off some deep passing from 20m out.
With the game now looking like a close one, the middle period of the match turned fairly ugly. Both sides having poor completion, probably best described as a ‘mistake-a-thon’ there were that many errors from both sides. Into touch on the first tackle, drops from tackle 1 from the scrum – there was every sin in the Rugby League book.
It’s probably a trait of Cronulla, the Sharks seem to play to the standard of their opposition. If they are facing the Storm or Manly, Cronulla lift heavily and look like world beaters – but on the flipside, if they face a poorly performing side as the Dragons were during this period – the Sharks matched their errors, blow for blow.
In the final period it turned into a real arm wrestle. Both sides trying to ensure completion was strong and simply getting to their kick. Brett Kearney was the man most likely to threaten, and with the Dragons edging ahead by 4 points with 10 minutes to go – the Sharks looked like they had blown their chance after marking Gasnier too heavily on the right edge and with so much attention on the centre, he simply offloaded early for Ben Hornby to scoot down the flank and score under the posts.
Cronulla rarely panic in these situations, but Greg Bird could have been guilty of nerves after grubbering to the corner on the first tackle and turning over possession. This play looked like the all-or-nothing chance for the Sharks and after the failed execution, it looked all over for them.
But amazingly, with 30 seconds to go – that same man Greg Bird had the confidence to grubber for the corner again and a flying Bryson Goodwin pulled off the pick-up of the year at full speed with minimal space to work in to score in the absolute corner of the ground. It was 16-16, with Luke Covell having the chance to win the game with a sideline conversion.
Covell shanked the kick badly and added to his woeful night, the usually safe winger dropping a stack of crucial ball and having a bad night with the boot.
Golden Point was on.
It was a real anti-climax for Dragons supporters, very early in golden point – virtually seconds into the extra period, a desperate Jason Ryles was penalised with he simply hung on too long to a surging Brett Kearney from 40m out. Referee Sean Hampstead had no choice to penalise the out of form prop and then Luke Covell had a chance to redeem himself, the rangy winger potting it nicely and giving the Sharks an unlikely win.
Yet again, the Ricky Stuart coached Sharks grind their way to a gutsy win. The Dragons finding yet another way to lose a game. Of more concern for St George Illawarra is a possible injury to Matt Cooper, the representative centre having a leg problem late in the game. Will Ryles recover from this poor mistake? The big prop had another average game and committed the sin of the year, giving away a penalty seconds into the extra time golden point period.