​Cronulla Sharks cruise past South Sydney Rabbitohs

Cronulla produced a gritty and mostly professional performance to outlast the Rabbitohs. Picture: Grant Trouville, NRL Photos

Cronulla produced a gritty and mostly professional performance to outlast the Rabbitohs. Picture: Grant Trouville, NRL Photos

When Cronulla destroyed fellow premiership heavyweights the Sydney Roosters three weeks ago it appeared as though the Sharks had finally turned the corner.

This was finally it. A commanding 32-point win in Gosford surely meant the reigning premiers were about to ignite their season and push on towards a top two finish – and an assault on back to back titles.

But just as they had done a number of times already in a season of false starts and patchy form, they were well beaten by the Titans on the Gold Coast in atrocious conditions in their following game last week.

Cronulla's 26-12  win over South Sydney on Friday night did little to prove whether or not the Sharks are truly back. But, much like they did many times last season, Cronulla produced a gritty and mostly professional performance to outlast the Rabbitohs and climb back into the top four momentarily at least. They could stay there if bitter local rivals St George Illawarra do them a favour and knock off the high-flying Sea Eagles on Sunday.

The win allowed Luke Lewis to celebrate his 300th NRL game in fine style. The two-time premiership winner with the Sharks and Penrith was presented with his jersey before the game by Panthers legend Royce Simmons.

He was greeted with a standing ovation from the 12,123-strong crowd and met by a guard of honour of family and friends as he made his way out on the field, with young daughter Hazel in his arms, to meet his wife Sonia. 

Cronulla have already saluted Chris Heighington reaching the 300-game milestone this season and they should have another triple centurion in captain Paul Gallen against Brisbane in round 23. It is that experience that Flanagan believes has helped his side win so many close games over the last two seasons.

"Luke is a quality person. The way he's held himself through his whole career, there's been no scandal around Luke Lewis. He's a quality person on and off the field," Flanagan said. 

"The players love playing with him. [He's] just shown this year he's continued his form, he's not tailing off and that's why we've re-signed him. He's just as good as he was 16 years ago. It's great to have him at our club.

"To play 50 games, I think that's around the average now. You play 100 you've doubled the average. We're going to have three players in our club this year that have played 300. I think that'd be a first. I think it's an amazing achievement for those individuals.

"That communication that Gal and Lewy and all those senior players have within the group during the week. They discuss those things and they talk about it. The younger players know what they're talking about to win those moments. To have those players it's a pleasure for me, great for me to have that experience in my team. They're all really great to coach, easy to coach. We're lucky to have them at our club."

It was a game that was a lot closer than the final score suggests. Flanagan and Souths coach Michael Maguire both said it came down to moments. It was a night where the important moments – the bounce of the ball, a mistimed pass, a poor kick at a crucial time – seemed to fall Cronulla's way.

The Sharks were without one of their State of Origin quintet Jack Bird who withdrew on Thursday with a sternum injury suffered late on in the defeat to the Titans. His absence allowed Sharks fans another look at what Shane Flanagan hinted they might see more of next season, with Kurt Capewell deputising at right centre.

The Sharks took an early lead when Wade Graham charged over from a short James Maloney pass. But Souths hit back quickly as Adam Reynolds produced a deft grubber kick for Braidon Burns to touch down.

Cronulla regained their lead midway through the first half when Fa'amanu Brown burrowed over from dummy-half before a Maloney penalty goal push the Sharks out to a 14-6 advantage at half-time.

The Sharks could have taken a 10-point lead to the break after they opted to kick for goal when given a penalty less than a minute before half-time, only for Maloney to pull the ball wide from a position that had to be considered a sitter by his high standards.

They were punished for not going for the try when Souths fought their way back again, this time with John Sutton carrying defenders with him over the line to score 13 minutes into the second half with Reynolds' conversion reducing the deficit to 14-12. It could have been worse for the Sharks, with Burns bombing a chance to put the Rabbitohs in front, unable to reel in a cross-field Reynolds kick under the attention of Sosaia Feki.

And Cronulla made Souths pay for not putting the Sharks away when they had the chance from the following set. Cronulla marched downfield allowing Maloney to hit the upright with a grubber, with the ball bouncing kindly for Chad Townsend who found Gerard Beale to score.

The New Zealand international dummied before falling over the line but will be the most unpopular man in the shire tonight after not passing to Lewis, unmarked on his outside. Lewis went close again with five minutes remaining, just beaten to the ball after chasing through a Townsend grubber.

Ricky Leutele made sure of the result, touching down from a Maloney kick as Up, Up Cronulla blasted over the ground at full-time.

Will Cronulla fans be singing it again in October? The jury is still out.

This story first appeared on Brisbane Times.