The NRL’s top eight is set after Toby Rudolf landed the final dagger in the Warriors’ brave season and sent Cronulla to the finals with a thrilling 22-14 win at Kogarah.
Two months after going back on a three-year contract at the Warriors to stay with Cronulla for family reasons, Rudolf inflicted an even bigger pain on the New Zealand club on Sunday night.
With the Sharks down 14-12 and six minutes to play after an almighty Warriors fightback, the Cronulla prop busted through three to charge over for his first NRL try and give his side the lead.
The game was then settled moments later when Ronaldo Mulitalo got his second of the night on the left wing, sealing the Sharks’ sixth straight finals appearance.
“Rugby league is a lot about character building,” coach John Morris said.
“But tonight it wasn’t about character building. It was character revealing.”
Former Warrior Shaun Johnson also starred in the win, playing a crucial role in both attack and defence.
Captaining a side for the first time in his career, Johnson set up two and also pulled off a first-half try-saving tackle on Chanel Harris-Tavita from behind.
It leaves Cronulla six points clear of the chasing pack with two weeks to play, and the race for the top four now the only battle still alive headed into the final fortnight.
However, Cronulla still needs to improve dramatically before October, still yet to beat a top-eight team this year.
“We all believe in each other that we can do something this year if we turn up with that kind of character,” Morris said.
“We’ve got the players and the experience … I know the players believe in each other and won’t take a backward step.
“They don’t fear other oppositions.”
The result ended one of the great fairytales of the NRL era, with the Warriors having defied their COVID-19 struggles to remain a hope of playing finals football.
And they didn’t go down without a fight.
After Johnson set up the first two tries with grubber-kicks for Sione Katoa and Mulitalo to set up a 12-0 lead, the Warriors looked gone.
But fellow Kiwi star Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Peta Hiku helped inspire the comeback, with the former beginning it with some magic just before the break.
The 2018 Dally M Medallist, Tuivasa-Sheck stepped his way through the line and offloaded for Jack Murchie to make it 12-6 at the break.
They had it back level in the second half when winger Adam Pompey scored, before Harris-Tavita kicked them two clear via a penalty.
But when Jazz Tevaga was penalised for a shoulder charge on one of the Sharks’ best in Siosifa Talakai, the match turned again.
Rudolf’s try from the ensuing set to broke the Warriors’ hearts, and sink the Wests Tigers, Manly and Gold Coast’s faint finale hopes in the process.
“I’m disappointed,” Warriors coach Payten said
“We ground our way to get back into the contest, but we got what we deserved in the end.
“I am proud to coach them.”