A sluggish start has cost the Sharks Jersey Flegg under-20s against the Mounties, with the youngsters going down 26-16 in an NRL curtain-raiser at Southern Cross Group Stadium.
After progressing through the opening 13 weeks of the competition undefeated, the junior Sharks have now lost their last two games. Despite the defeats, they remain in outright third position on 20 points – two wins clear of the fourth-placed Mounties.
The Sharks began in the worst possible manner, coughing up the ball in their first two sets of the match and conceding multiple penalties. Their ill-discipline would prove expensive, as the Mounties opened the scoring in the fifth minute via a determined dummy-half charge from winger Thomas McGrady.
Fullback Andre Niko's conversion was successful and the Mounties were out to an early converted try lead.
More indiscretions from the Sharks allowed the Mounties to advance into attacking territory after the restart, and the visitors made the most of the opportunity. Five-eighth Paul Roache held the Cronulla defence up with a clever dummy, before skipping to the outside and powering through half a gap to score.
Niko couldn't add the extras from out wide and the Sharks now trailed 10-nil.
Soon after, the Sharks very nearly crossed with their first attacking opportunity when they created an overlap on the right edge. But a wayward last pass ended up over the sideline and a golden chance was squandered.
Cronulla looked certain to score on the left-hand side moments later – only for the same result to occur. After some smooth backline play, representative centre Bronson Xerri couldn't link with winger Isaac Lumelume; his pass landing in the front row of the grandstand.
Nothing was going right for the Sharks, and their pain was compounded when Mounties back-rower Hudson Young collected a loose ball and raced 50 metres to touch down under the posts. The simple goal kick was on-target, and suddenly the Mounties' buffer stretched to 16 points.
With six minutes until half-time, Cronulla finally got on the board thanks to an individual effort from hooker Harrison Smith. The wily No.9 skirted around the tired Mounties defenders and dashed 20 metres to the line, injecting life into his side in the process. Halfback Braydon Trindall nailed the conversion to close the gap further.
The Sharks weren't done with in the first stanza yet. A penalty piggy-backed the home team up the field, and they scored a few plays later courtesy of hard-running backrower Blake Manowski.
Trindall had no issues with the goal kick and the Sharks were back within striking distance at the break.
The Mounties enjoyed heavy possession in the Sharks' 'red-zone' to start the second-half, but the Shire boys showed strong defensive resolve to turn them away.
Eventually, the pressure proved too much for Cronulla to withstand. Mounties forward Darby Medlyn claimed his team's fourth try of the evening to create an eight-point gap. The conversion was waved away but the Sharks had it all to do.
A second four-pointer to Thomas McGrady kicked the Mounties ahead further as the Sharks' hopes faded. Niko made no mistake with the conversion, putting his team ahead by 14.
The Sharks refused to roll over though, striking back with a fantastic try of their own. Following a beautiful interchange of passing, winger Chris Tupou athletically planted the ball inside the right-hand corner post.
Trindall's conversion attempt bounced away off the upright, leaving the Sharks needing to score two converted tries in the final seven minutes to steal a win.
It would be a bridge too far for Cronulla, as the Mounties collected a deserved win. The Sharks will look to get their 2018 campaign back on track when they take on the ladder-leading Knights at Henson Park next round.
Harry Smith, Chris Tupou, Blake Manowski tries, Braydon Trindall 2 goals