Cronulla overcome Will Kennedy’s early send-off by not going into their shell to embarrass the New Zealand Warriors 29-10 at PointsBet Stadium on Sunday.
Tries from Connor Tracey, Teig Wilton and a raft of points from Nicho Hynes were enough to lift the Sharks above a Warriors team that never threatened despite playing over an hour with a man extra.
This was one of the performances of the season by any side: the Sharks had a man dismissed, then went behind, but showed all their commitment and skill to not just defeat, but batter the Warriors into submission.
The major talking point came in the 16th minute. It was a classic coathanger tackle, and Kennedy can have few complaints about the decision.
Reece Walsh was taken clean off his feet, though he bounced straight back up from the tackle and was uninjured. It was the second incident in as many weeks in which a player has been sent from the field in the early stages, following Karl Lawton’s dismissal in the 8th minute last week in Manly’s loss to South Sydney after a spear tackle.
Craig Fitzgibbon revealed that, even before Kennedy was marched, the Sharks had been up against it: the team had trained in two groups as a flu ripped through the group in the week.
His team impressed not only through their resolve, but also their willingness to keep attacking.
“You know that if you’re a man down and you try to tough it out by just hit ups and kicking it back to them, you’ll gas yourself and you won’t ask enough questions,” said the Sharks coach.
“You get belief out of executing and playing footy. (Matt) Moylan and Nicho are fearless and it won’t matter what I tell them, they’re still going to throw the ball around. It’s important that you play footy and express yourself.
“We play what we see anyway. With the ball, we allow them to move around freely and play eyes up.”
“There were a few defensive cues, because Nicho had to go to fullback and we put Blake Brayley into Nicho’s position.
“We were shuffling the decks defensively and making sure that we had that mentality to scramble. But when they got the ball, they were under instructions to play footy. We’re not dying wondering, we play as much as we can.”
Hynes backed this up, explaining that attack had to be the best form of defence with a man light.
“You’ve got to play smarter, not harder in those situations,” he said. “You try to take time away, kick it out and get repeat sets and try to run the clock down as much as you can.
“That’s what I tried to do, it control with my kicking game. You can’t go hit up, hit up, hit up – it’s too easy to read.
“You’ve still got to take some gas out of them and move them around so that when they’re attacking, they’re a bit buggered as well.
“If you don’t, they would have too much energy and would put points on.”
It is the first time in nearly 15 years that a team playing a man light has won the game, since Manly defeated Canberra in 2008 after Adam Cuthbertson had been dismissed.
It was a rousing occasion, with the fans cheering every tackle in the closing stages and the stadium DJ playing ‘Up Up Cronulla’ three times back to back to celebrate. The Sharkies players deserved everything that came their way.
The stats were so impressive: 90% completion, nearly 60% possession and territory, five line breaks and close to 1500m, all with a player out and, for 10 minutes, two men fewer when Jesse Ramien was sin-binned in the second half.
But the stats only tell half the story: this was blood and guts effort, allied with smarts and skill.
The Warriors were awful. They managed just two line breaks against the shortened defensive line, with none at all in the second half.
It was pathetic stuff, perhaps their worst performance of the season – including their record defeat, which came just two weeks ago in Melbourne.
Perhaps to exemplify the rot that was going through the New Zealand ranks, they had the opportunity to activate their 18th man after Ramien’s sin bin for a high shot, but didn’t know that they were able to until informed by Fox League.
“Truth be told, we probably played better footy in the first 40 than we did last week,” said Brown.
“We played far better, but anytime you’re not doing consistently, you have to look at why it’s not happening.
“As a coach, you look at yourself first and then have a chat with the senior players. We’re coming to the stage of the season where we need to put wins together.
“We have a lot of hard work to do and there’s some good questions to be answered.”
It had all started so easily for Cronulla. Jesse Ramien, so often the spark, got early ball on the right and broke the line, feeding Sione Katoa and eventually Nicho Hynes to open the scoring.
It was a classic Cronulla 2022: a fast, early shift followed by rapid pace and devastating finishing. At that stage, it looked like the game could only go one way, but the game’s vital incident occurred and the momentum shifted massively.
The moments after the send off were crucial for the Warriors. As Cronulla sought to come to terms with the situation, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak didn’t wait about. He waltzed in at the corner, taking advantage of the man extra.
Soon after, Reece Walsh dusted himself down to slink through the Sharks defence and create an opportunity from which Viliami Vailea touched down. There were questions from the bunker, but the try was allowed to stand.
Despite the disadvantage, Cronulla kept the pressure up. The Sharks generated six sets in a row – including three set restarts, and the Warriors were lucky to keep 13 on the field – and even with the man down, that was too much defending. Teig Wilton was the beneficiary, breaking a tackle to score.
After the restart, the traffic continued In the same direction. The Sharks forced a dropout and, on the next set, Hynes and Matt Moylan combined to create the opportunity on the outside for Connor Tracey.
The Sharks discipline would haunt them again. Jesse Ramien was binned for a high shoulder charge on Euan Aitken and, in truth, he might consider himself lucky to only get ten minutes.
Again, the Warriors pushed but failed to make the most of it. They pushed and enjoyed three repeat sets on the Sharks’ line, but the kicking was poor and the defence manful.
Even with 11 men, Cronulla had the go-forward with ball in hand to move into the attacking zone and ask questions. Though they didn’t come up with points, the Sharks wasted enough time to get Ramien back on the field. The home crowd had cheered every tackle of the 10 minutes.
They had more to cheer. Hynes, the standout for the Sharks, pulled out the bag of tricks with a long pass to Connor Tracey, who ran the ball round the back towards the posts.
It was scintillating attacking, but for a team to be caught so short with a man extra was unforgivable defensively.
On the other side, the tackling went from strength to strength. Cronulla kept New Zealand within 30m off their own line for five tackles and then caught them on the last, turning the ball over in the red zone.
They thought they had scored again, too, only for Tracey to be pulled back for a forward pass. Undeterred, Hynes added the one point moments later.
They didn’t need it: the Warriors were shot to pieces and conceded another. Nicho Hynes kicked, Ramien batted it down, Hynes got around the outside and found Ramien again on to score.
It was inspirational, gutsy, exhilarating stuff from Cronulla. The less said about the Warriors the better.