The Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks have kept their title defence on track with a 26-12 victory over the New Zealand Warriors in front of 9771 spectators at Mt Smart Stadium tonight, putting an official end to the home team's season in the process.
Needing to win their remaining six games to give themselves a chance of playing finals football the home team opened the game with a strong set of six in which they charged 60 metres downfield, but the game quickly swung in favour of the visitors with back to back penalties marching the Sharks up field for an early opportunity.
The defending Premiers needed little invitation with halfback Chad Townsend grubber kicking behind the line for Kurt Capewell who was a late inclusion at right centre in place of Jack Bird to pounce on the ball for the opening try in the 4th minute.
In the absence of regular goal-kicker James Maloney, fullback Valentine Holmes assumed the role to slot his first kick of the night through the uprights to give his team an early 6-0 lead.
The game would soon go into a holding pattern for the remainder of the opening twenty minutes until hooker Isaac Luke looked to have burrowed over from dummy half in the 21st minute. They would have levelled the scores there and then if not for the 301 games of experience being showcased by veteran back-rower Luke Lewis who managed to get a hand under the ball to hold Luke up over the line.
They wouldn't be denied soon after though when centre Solomone Kata plucked a pass from James Segeyaro out of the air to race sixty metres down the left touchline to score in the corner in the 29th minute. Luke nailed the conversion from the touchline to level the scores at six all.
The inconsistency that has plagued the Warriors through their existence would soon let them down again when from the ensuing set of six, halfback Mason Lino spilled the ball with Sharks pivot Fa'amanu Brown scooping it up and racing thirty metres to score.
Holmes slotted the extras to give his team an eventual 12-6 lead heading into the sheds at halftime.
An early penalty goal to Holmes in the second stanza gave his team a handy eight point buffer, but the visitors were quick to turn the momentum when Bulldogs bound five-eighth Kieran Foran hustled Townsend to force the Sharks half to kick out on the full.
On the back of two forced drop-outs, Lino opened up the Sharks defence with a well-timed short ball hitting back-rower Bodene Thompson who crossed untouched in the 49th minute. Luke converted the try to reduce the deficit to two.
It proved as close as the Warriors would get for the night after a couple of injury stoppages halted play with a little over twenty minutes to play turning the game in the visitors favour.
Not long after Thompson left the field for the Warriors with what looked a pectoral injury, Brown was left unconscious for the Sharks after copping what looked an accidental knee from Warriors prop Sam Lisone. The incident was put on report though gifting the Sharks a penalty and a chance to go on the attack.
Quick to capitalize on the opportunity, the premiers put on a classy back-line movement going through the fast hands of Townsend, Graham and Leutele before the ‘Feki Factor' came into play as the winger dived over in the corner. Holmes kept his perfect night with the boot intact to send his team out to a 20-12 lead.
The game (and the Warriors season) were ultimately put to bed when the enigmatic Andrew Fifita got his right arm free to offload to fellow bookend Matt Prior to charge into the clear. Prior's ensuing pass hit the deck, but interchange forward Jayson Bukuya did well to scoop the bouncing ball up at speed to crash over in the 71st minute.
The win moves the Sharks into second position on the ladder for the next 24 hours at least and keeps them well in the hunt for an all-important top four finish.
Next week, the Warriors head to McDonald Jones Stadium to lock horns with the Newcastle Knights on Saturday afternoon where they will have little more than pride to play for.
The Sharks meanwhile head back to the Shire where they will play host to the Canberra Raiders at Southern Cross Group Stadium later that evening.