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'It didn't look great': Ciraldo rages at ref after Nikora escapes send-off on wild night in Cronulla

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15th March, 2024
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Cronulla have continued their strong start to the year with a 25-6 win over Canterbury, with Nicho Hynes steering the ship and Ronaldo Mulitalo showing some class, but to reduce this 80 minutes of madness to a scoreline would be to do it a disservice.

It was a wild game that started with chaos and got crazier from there.

Poasa Faamausili was knocked out cold in the first tackle of the game, Briton Nikora should have been sent from the field and, at times, it seemed like the referee would lose control of the game.

“I haven’t had too many looks at it but it didn’t look great,” said Bulldogs coach Cameron Ciraldo.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 15: Viliame Kikau of the Bulldogs is tackled during the round two NRL match between Cronulla Sharks and Canterbury Bulldogs at PointsBet Stadium on March 15, 2024, in Sydney, Australia.

(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

“He (Nikora) is not that sort of player so I don’t think he would have meant it. But it wasn’t a great look.”

“I thought there were a lot of other calls that went against us. Blake Taaffe gets tackled in the air and loses the ball – that’s a penalty every day of the week.

“I’m going to have to send them (videos) in this week and get some clarity on some of them because there’s just so many of them. 

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“I felt like that last year, but we were hurting ourselves last year and we didn’t have that same level of effort.

“Now I have that level of effort from our guys, I want to get the fair calls and for us to get what we deserve.” 

In the end, Ziggy Prezeklasa-Adamski did calm things down, albeit by dishing out ten penalties in half an hour – almost none of them his fault – and berating the captains for their charges’ ‘shenanigans’ in a game packed with niggle.

He did, however, deny the Dogs a certain try by inadvertently blocking Braydon Trindall’s attempt to tackle Viliame Kikau as the Fijian backrower roamed through.

Prezeklasa-Adamski looked very sheepish, but much as we would like for refs to have eyes in the back of their heads, they don’t, so there wasn’t much he could have done.

There was still time for another call to go against the Dogs, with Kikau pinged for a high shot that wasn’t, but eventually, they did open the scoring through Blake Wilson.

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Ten penalties in the opening half hour told it all, plus another three set restarts. Ziggy had his hands full all the way through and regularly warned the captains not to push him, but eventually managed to keep a lid on what was a wild, indisciplined first half.

When the teams returned, their discipline had improved and the football took over. Eventually, the Sharks had too much for Canterbury, but the Dogs’ didn’t go down without a fight.

Their defence is much improved under Cameron Ciraldo in 2024 and, just like last week, they eventually succumbed as a result of their ball control and lack of execution in attack.

There’s still big questions about how they think they score points, but the evidence now would suggest an improve in their ability to stop them.

Craig Fitzgibbon, on the other hand, knows his men can and will score. As the game went on, that was only demonstrated by some excellent tries that blew the score out.

“We had to earn what we got, it wasn’t handed to us,” he said. “We didn’t try and overdo it at 6-6 and we didn’t lose our way.”

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Does the NRL actually care about head contact?

A whole report could be written about the first ten minutes of this.

Faamausili ended up concussed and with a huge shiner under his eye after a head-on-head collision with Cameron McInnes.

There was no suggestion of a penalty – in fact, Cronulla got the ball as the prop forward spilled the ball – but, as anyone who has watched the Super League this year will know, there probably should be.

All of the data is abundantly clear on this: the heads are the danger, and the mutual space that is occupied by that sort of tackle is where the greatest portion of concussion occur, for both the tackler and the ball carrier.

Unless Australian heads are somehow different to British ones, then that’s true here too.

Nikora then sought to make that point even more strongly by smashing Viliame Kikau high, late and forcefully with the shoulder.

He was binned, a set or so after the incident occurred, but in any sane world it would have been a send off. It wasn’t near the ball and was completely avoidable.

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The Sharks’ size makes the difference

It’s not hard to be bigger than the Bulldogs, who only have a limited number of recognised props, and it’s even easier when they lose one of them in the first tackle of the game.

Yet Cronulla struggled to make much of an impression – until they rolled in their big men. Big is the operative word: Tom Hazleton is about as large as they come in the NRL, and Tuka Hau Tupuha, who made his club debut tonight, might even be bigger.

It’s been a knock on this Sharks team that they have prioritised agility in their pack above bulk, but the signing of Addin Fonua-Blake for next year shows a willingness to change that.

The introduction of Hazleton into the team coincided with a minor tweak in playing style, and if they can find an increased role for Tupuha as the year goes on, they might have a real chance when the whips get cracking.

The pair successfully straightened the attack, allowing Blayke Brailey to take over and Will Kennedy to play off that. Cronulla, who had been a bit side to side prior to that, suddenly kicked into gear.

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In the short term, the encouraging signs from last week were also there: the defence conceded just once, when down to 12, and though that required a little help from the ref getting in the way, it was enough to get them home.

Canterbury have learned how to tackle

The Dog’s defence was a bit of a dog’s dinner in 2023. But in two games of 2024, it’s clear that something has changed.

Despite a huge deficit in possession last week in Parramatta, they actually held up well and Ciraldo spoke afterwards of how proud he was.

That was clear again today. It wasn’t just the effort and organisation, too. This was smart stuff, with Canterbury clearly identifying how much the Sharks love to play short to the backrower and lining up to counteract that.

The punches were thrown and thrown well in the first half, but the Dogs largely caught them on the gloves.

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Their starch was decent too. At one point, Nicho Hynes had to kick from his own 20m on the last tackle.

The central question coming out of last week surrounded their ability not to have to defend, with ball control and discipline the major problems.

Penalties are still an issue, though at least they found an opponent willing to match them in that regard, and the attack also isn’t quite there, though that’s standard early round stuff.

The resolve and intent, however, which had been severely questioned throughout 2023, does appear to have improved a lot.

Parra away and the Sharks away is as tough as it comes in terms of starts, but with the Titans next week, there’s more than a chance.

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