Cronulla returned to the Top 4 after effectively ending South Sydney's faint finals hopes after defeating the Rabbitohs 26-12 tonight at Shark Park to get their season back on track and celebrate club legend Luke Lewis' 300th match in style.
Skipper Paul Gallen was terrific for the home side, running for over 200 metres and continuously putting the Sharks on the front foot. The milestone man Lewis, went inches from capping off a memorable night, when the two time premiership winner just missed out on diving on a Chad Townsend grubber with minutes remaining.
For the Rabbitohs, their disappointing season now looks all but over and the loss was further compounded when their marquee forward Sam Burgess left the field late in the game with a potentially serious rib injury, which could see him in some doubt for next week and beyond.
Prior to kickoff it was the Sharks backrower and Clive Churchill Medalist who celebrated his 300th milestone. However once the game began, it was on the left hand side of the field where the Sharks attacked immediately and it paid dividends after just three minutes, when second row partner Wade Graham charged through and enormous hole close to the line, and the Sharks were celebrating Lewis' milestone in style, jumping out to a 6-0 lead.
The Rabbitohs season was on the line tonight, however halfback Adam Reynolds gave the visitors a some hope with a superb grubber early in the tackle count which found winger Braidon Burns on the spot to score and tie the game at 6-all after just nine minutes.
Sharks half Chad Townsend was controlling the game beautifully with his pin point kicking on the last tackle which forced two consecutive seven tackle sets. When Andrew Fifita charged towards Reynolds close to the line, the pocket size half was penalised for stripping the ball in a two man tackle. The Rabbitohs defence though finally cracked, when hooker Nu Brown burrowed his way over from dummy half to extend the Sharks lead by 12-6 after Maloney converted the try.
Consecutive penalties off the next sets of six to the Sharks gave Maloney the chance to extend the defending premiers lead to eight points and NSW five-eighth Maloney obliged, taking the points on offer and the Sharks lead 14-6 at halftime.
The Rabbitohs needed to keep their seasons' pulse going by scoring first and they did just that when five eighth John Sutton turned back the clock and took the line on ten metres out and managed to muscle his way over to score to get Souths a lifeline. Reynolds converted to narrow the Sharks lead to 14-12 and pump up the Rabbitohs tyres with half an hour remaining.
South Sydney were then given a golden opportunity to produce points, when Sharks prop Andrew Fifita made back to back errors to put the visitors on the attack and in prime field position. Adam Reynolds continued to turn the screws following the errors, however the Sharks held strong after Bunnies winger Braidon Burns grassed a chance to catch a pin point cross field kick from Reynolds to score.
Off the back of the error, Sharks five-eighth Maloney made the Bunnies pay when the Sharks marched up field and on the last Maloney directed a kick towards the base of the post, which rebounded into the path of Chad Townsend, who found Gerard Beale unmarked to score a decisive try and extend the lead to 18-12 with ten minutes remaining.
Maloney then iced the game in the final minutes, when his kick in goal found centre Ricky Leutele flashing through to score and secure the Sharks a vital home win and end the hopes of the South Sydney faithful for 2017.
Cronulla now head across the Tasman, where they face the Warriors next Friday night in what will prove a dangerous away trip for Shane Flanagan's men. Meanwhile the Rabbitohs will host the Canberra at ANZ Stadium next Saturday and will be sweating on scans to see if they will line up with inspirational leader Sam Burgess.