There have been plenty of great victories in Roosters history, but few could have been gutsier than this.
The Chooks advance into the second week of the finals on the back of a Sam Walker field goal, a fitting redemption for a player dropped after his last visit to the Shire, 13-12 in a game where everything went wrong for them.
They went behind twice, lost Joseph Suaalii and Joey Manu to injury, saw James Tedesco sent to the bin and still came up trumps.
The effort levels were through the roof. The Roosters, decimated, charged down two field goal attempts from Nicho Hynes, with Tedesco, then Luke Keary pushing the energy bars into the red to get over the line.
“There were lots of reasons not to win that game and I felt like the spirit grew the more changes and chaos got created,” said Trent Robinson.
“The players grew, they got calmer, they got really focused on key areas that maybe we weren’t in the first half.
“I’m just really proud. You want the footy to improve but as far as the spirit with which the club and the team plays the game, that was the high, high end.”
This was everything that fans love about finals football. Cronulla twice took the lead, then twice were pegged back, with Nicho Hynes finally producing the finals performance that his regular season showings have promised.
They had their adversity too, with Tom Hazleton being taken to hospital midway through the game with an abdominal injury.
Craig Fitzgibbon will be left wondering where it all went wrong. It’s a sixth consecutive loss in the finals, and another defeat to one of the big boys gone. After going out in straight sets last year, they depart again at the first opportunity.
The Sharks just couldn’t generate the points against a Roosters defence that gave everything. Certainly, Cronulla had the chances: Blayke Brailey might have regathered a kick to score and, of course, Hynes could have had the two field goals, had opponents not intervened.
Craig Fitzgibbon thought his side should have been awarded a try in the first half when Cam McInnes was adjudged to have been held up.
“It’s fine margins Some moments, decisions. But from where we were at the midpoint of the season, I’m proud of how we’ve ended up.
“Obviously, I’m disappointed about tonight but I think we’re starting to grow up as a footy team and things that everyone has been happy to criticise us about, we’re starting to address those.
“I thought Cam McInnes scored. The moments or lack of decisions but there’s no point worrying about it now, it’s going to get fobbed off anyway. We’ll just have to deal with it.”
“It was a cracking game for the most part, two good defensive performances. They kept finding a way. They had to make changes and kept scrambling, but at the end of the day, it’s a kick deflection try that broke it open and that hurts, it really hurts.”
Next week can only be a bonus for the Roosters. Suaalii left at half time with delayed concussion symptoms, Manu with a recurrence of his hamstring problems. Neither will likely feature in Melbourne. Walker also found himself on report for a high tackle, but should escape with a fine.
Billy Smith also went off for a HIA at one point, leaving the Chooks with 12 on the field, 15 in total and little hope. Forwards played in the backs, halves defended wherever they could and whatever plan they might have had was ripped apart.
They kept going, however, and showed all the fight that has become characteristic of Trent Robinson’s time in charge.
Some of the younger players who have been forced into it this year, notably Sandon Smith and Siua Wong, came to the fore.
So did two of the more maligned characters of 2023 with Brandon Smith producing his best display in the Tricolours jersey and Victor Radley giving all aggression with none of the downsides.
For the first 20 minutes, Trent Robinson would have been happy for the gap to be just six points.
His side didn’t get to think about attack because they barely left their half, and when they had the ball, their biggest issue was holding onto it long enough to kick it away from somewhere vaguely respectable.
They were getting battered in field position, but as has been constant all year despite their struggles, the defence was holding up pretty well. It took a moment of Hynes genius – and a misread from Pauga – to prise them open.
Then, for the second 20 minute period, Robbo would have been pulling his hair out. His team had all the ball and all the territory, but couldn’t make anything happen.
It wasn’t the bad old days of earlier in the year where they never looked like scoring, and certainly, the Sharks deserved credit for their defence, but it wasn’t inspiring stuff.
The execution wasn’t quite there, especially on the right edge, where Manu, Suaalii and Walker seemed disconnected.
It was perhaps ironic that after huffing and puffing for so long in the first half, it took next to no time to cross in the second, with Walker producing a characteristic looping pass to the Kiwi international on the wing.
Smith had his best showing in a Roosters jersey, dominating behind the ruck with physicality and intuition out of dummy half.
It was arguable early in the year that the Roosters’ attacking woes stemmed in large part from their lack of punch in the middle, but that was rectified by Smith’s ability to pick moments, not to mention the hard carries from Suaalii and Pauga out of the backfield.
In truth, no amount of cohesion could have overcome the loss of personnel, however.
It was pretty much a straight line upwards for the attack from the moment Robinson go his preferred 1-6 back on the field, so losing two of the most important cogs in that machine – then, temporarily, two more – was always going to be fatal.
It was a cruel irony that they lost all their backline just as they had found their mojo. After being held at arm’s length for the first half, the Chooks’ attack clicked into gear and levelled the scores.
Once the Sharks went ahead again, it looked like curtain, but Wong grabbed one back and Walker did the rest.
Craig Fitzgibbon would have wondered how much his team could roll with the best, given their relatively slim pickings against elite sides during his tenure.
Though the Roosters finished seventh, there’s no doubt that on a roster level they are elite, and his side were able to beat them with the ball early on, then defend them when that time came later in the first half.
Hynes, himself often lumped in with the idea that the Sharks struggle with the upper end of the competition, was super active early on. He ran seven times in the first half hour – his game average is eight – and created the opener, looking every inch the superstar.
But then he put it away, and the team suffered as a result. Between the 30th and 50th minute, he didn’t run once.
Then, of course, when Hynes got his hands back on the footy, he made another impact. It was he who was tackled for Tedesco’s sin bin, then seconds later, he who got the last touch to put Ronaldo Mulitalo over.
It was Hynes, too, who threw himself in front of Pauga to stop him when it looked like the Roosters might throw back with 15 minutes to play.
The trouble was, perhaps, everyone else. Braydon Trindall and Connor Tracey weren’t as threatening in attack as their opposing numbers and there were issues in getting the ball to strike weapons early, as is a trademark of regular Sharks footy.
On reflection, however, Fitzgibbon might just look at his old mentor and shrug. His side did plenty to win. The Roosters just did more.