Who will straddle the middle of the table in the upcoming NRL season?
Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan laid the blame squarely at his players – not the referees – after the Sharks’ top-four hopes took a huge dent with a 33-32 golden-point NRL loss to lowly Manly.
Rebounding from last week’s shattering collapse against Penrith, Manly secured two competition points through a left-footed field goal from skipper Daly Cherry-Evans two minutes into extra time on Sunday.
The stirring victory condemned Cronulla to a sixth straight loss to their arch-rivals on home soil and left the Sharks almost certainly needing to win their last four games to earn a double chance in the finals.
“In theory, you win your next four games, you’re a chance. But if we play like that, we’re not going to win our next four games. It’s pretty clear,” Flanagan said after watching his side concede five tries to the wooden-spoon candidates.
“We’ve just got to concentrate week to week and concentrate now on Melbourne. It’s going to be a tough game and we can’t be looking too far ahead.”
Flanagan lamented a Valentines Holmes missed penalty goal from virtually in front that could have stretched Cronulla’s six-point lead to beyond a converted try as the clock wound down at Southern Cross Group Stadium.
“Two weeks in a row (we’ve missed) penalty kicks in front,” he said.
“Maybe if we kick that goal, we go eight points ahead, it changes their mindset and we probably win the game.
“But we can’t put it down just to the goal kick.”
In a rare confession in a season of unrelenting referee beatings from NRL coaches, Flanagan refused to argue two no-try rulings against his side in the first half because of obstructions.
“The attention to detail on our behalf was poor. They were no tries to the letter of the law,” he said.
Sharks fans saw the rulings differently, booing referee Henry Perenara off after he blew 23 penalties for the match and sent Test prop Aaron Woods to the sin bin during a wild first half punctuated by stoppages.
But, fielding their strongest side of the season, the Sharks had only themselves to blame for failing to put the lowly Eagles to the sword and missing the chance to join St George Illawarra in equal fourth spot.
A Manly win looked most unlikely when star fullback Valentine Holmes sliced open the Sea Eagles’ defence in the fourth minute to collect his 18th try of the season to join Paul Gallen as the equal-sixth top try-scorer in Cronulla’s 52-year history.
But three quickfire tries gave the visitors a 20-18 halftime lead, which they extended to eight points almost immediately after the resumption.
Cronulla appeared to have escaped defeat, though, when Matt Moylan stepped his way over to regain the lead for his side before a Joel Thompson try, then Cherry-Evans’ field goal sunk the Sharks.