By Troy Whittaker
A flurry of late Eels tries almost spoiled the party, but the Sharks hung on to win a 22-20 nail-biter over Parramatta at Southern Cross Group Stadium.
Despite missing stars Paul Gallen, Luke Lewis, Josh Dugan and Jason Bukuya, plus having captain Wade Graham (tweaked hamstring) and backrower Scott Sorensen (broken hand) leave the field early with injury, a dominant first half from the Sharks was enough for the club to record a third consecutive win.
The game couldn't have started any better for Cronulla. The Sharks were almost on the board in second minute of the match when Andrew Fifita came within inches of the try-line, only for a Parramatta player to illegally strip the ball and give away a penalty in the process. Cronulla wouldn't have to wait much longer to post first points, scoring off the ensuing set with Sosaia Feki touching down in the north-west corner after a slick backline move.
Halfback Chad Townsend was on target from the sideline, driving the ball straight between the uprights to give the Sharks an early 6-0 lead.
Cronulla's jubilation was short-lived when Parramatta quickly returned fire. A string of penalties handed the away side prime field position and they took full advantage, Eels winger Bevan French crossing out wide following a lovely succession of rapid-fire passing. Mitch Moses' goal attempt was wide and the Sharks held a 2-point advantage after 15 minutes.
Multiple errors then stifled the momentum of both teams, until a pinpoint kick from Graham trapped the Eels in their own on goal and earned the Sharks a golden attacking chance from the repeat set. They didn't miss out on the opportunity, putting on another well-worked shift that saw Feki nab his second try.
Townsend's goal attempt was unsuccessful but the Sharks had now skipped out to converted try margin.
Minutes later the Sharks were in again, this time courtesy of Townsend. A beautiful inside pass from Kurt Capewell to Valentine Holmes saw the stand-in fullback burst into the Eels' backfield and find his halfback backing up on the inside to score next to the posts. Townsend easily converted his own try and the Sharks seemed in full control at 16-4.
The Eels threatened in the shadows of halftime but the Sharks' defence remained resolute, stifling the attacking prowess of Parramatta halves Moses and Corey Norman. The hooter finally sounded and the home side went into the break with a handy 12-point buffer.
Cronulla raced out of the blocks in the second half when Townsend and Matt Moylan combined perfectly down the right edge to put winger Edrick Lee over for his first try of the night. Townsend was again wide with the conversion but the result looked ominous at 20-4 in the Sharks' favour. A Townsend penalty goal in with 15 minutes to go then pushed the Sharks' lead out to three converted tries.
Holmes looked to have scored a scintillating 75-metre solo try that brought the parochial Cronulla crowd to their feet, only for the video referee to rule that Moylan had impeded a Parramatta defender. The Eels scored a try to David Gower off the back of the obstruction penalty awarded to keep within in touch.
Another try moments later to Michael Jennings, converted by Moses, set up a grandstand finish. With mere seconds remaining the Eels looked set to send the game to golden point when Moses cut through a gap to score out wide.
Southern Cross Group Stadium collectively held its breath, but fortunately for Sharks fans, Moses' conversion was waved away and Cronulla escaped with a two-point victory.
Now sitting inside the top eight, the Sharks will look to extend their winning streak next Sunday when they travel to Canberra to take on the Raiders at GIO Stadium.