Canberra entered Round 19 knowing that nothing less than a win against the Sharks would suffice. Sitting four points outside the top eight, they desperately needed a win to keep their season alive. They tried hard against the Sharks and very nearly pulled off the most unlikely of comebacks however it was too little, too late as a series of controversial refereeing decisions went against the Green Machine. Plenty of talking points to come out of this match as the Sharks sneak home 28-24.
1 The Bunker in the spotlight again
They may be the Green Machine but Canberra certainly didn't have the rub of the green in this game. Cronulla looked to have the game wrapped up at halftime, taking a 22-6 lead into the sheds. The Raiders however, came out a completely different side in the second stanza, putting on a run of tries after the break to trail by just four points. Unfortunately for Canberra, that's where their good fortune ended.
With 20 minutes left in the game, Cronulla shifted the play to their right-hand side and looked to have knocked the football on. The touch judge raised his flag and the referee put the whistle to his mouth only to let play go on. It was a bizarre series of events that was sent up to the Bunker as a 'no try'. Controversially, the bunker found enough evidence to overturn that ruling despite suggestions that the football had glanced the bicep of Sharks centre - Jesse Ramien. It looked a very tough call against the Raiders and ultimately killed off any chance they had to salvage their season.
Canberra better have their loose change at the ready because Ricky Stuart's post-match press conference will be one for the ages.
2 Sharks left side lethal
If the second half belonged to the Raiders, then the first was a knockout victory to the Sharks. Cronulla's left side attack was lethal and second-rower Wade Graham terrorised the Raiders defence every time he ran the ball. He finished the match with a line break, 7 tackle busts, 132 running metres and a determined try right on halftime. Most impressive was the fact that Graham racked up those stats in only 40 minutes of football.
The second-rower didn't return after halftime, rested as an injury precaution. Since returning in Round 18, Graham has looked in great touch and his combination play with fullback Valentine Holmes should be enough to have opposition defences sweating.
3 Leilua the best in a beaten side
Despite not getting the result they so desperately needed, you couldn't blame the Raiders for lack of effort. They gave the game everything in the final 40 minutes and came agonisingly close to an unlikely victory.
Their best tonight was by far their rampaging centre - Joseph Leilua. The hulking Leilua is a divisive player. Often criticised for his perceived lack of effort or tendency to drift in and out of games, you certainly couldn't say Leilua didn't give it his all in this one. He set up a try, scored two of his own and finished with three line breaks in what was a stellar performance. More impressive, though, was his willingness to do the grunt work. So many times in this game, he helped Canberra out of tough situations with strong, determined running. It was a brave performance in a beaten side and one that won't have been lost on many dejected Raiders supporters.
4 Where to now for Canberra?
Entering Season 2018, it all looked so promising for the Canberra Raiders. With a stable roster over the past few seasons, many had the Raiders earmarked for bigger and better things this year. Instead, they find themselves out of luck and out of contention with six rounds still to play.
The pre-season injury to Josh Hodgson certainly didn't help the Raiders' cause, but you do have to question the mental resolve of some of their players. The way they wilted in so many early season matches was disappointing and even in this game with everything on the line, their first-half effort suggested their minds were elsewhere. In the five seasons that Ricky Stuart has been coach of the club, the Raiders have managed only one finals appearance. Yes, rebuilds take time but that's certainly not a great return on investment...
5 Are Cronulla the dark horse?
Cronulla have moved into the top four (albeit temporarily) with this win, but is it now time to declare them serious premiership threats? They've been solid without impressing for most of the season but there are signs that this Sharks side are coming good at just the right time of the season.
Matt Moylan has found his stride in the number six jersey while Valentine Holmes has locked down the fullback position in emphatic fashion. The classy number one had now scored 13 tries in his last 15 games suggesting he is back to his best. Let's not forget, the bulk of this side were premiers only two years ago. Forgiving last year's premiership hangover where they finished fifth, there's enough to suggest that there's life back in this Sharks outfit.
What did you make of the controversial calls in tonight's match? Let us know in the comments below.
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