An understrength Sharks Jersey Flegg under-20s side has suffered a third straight loss, beaten 24-18 by the ladder-leading Newcastle Knights at Henson Park on Saturday afternoon.
After trailing 14-nil at half-time in the absence of captain Teig Wilson and centre Bronson Xerri (NSW Origin under-20s camp), the Sharks produced a valiant second stanza comeback to nearly snatch what would have been an unlikely win. However, they were ultimately outmuscled five tries to three by the Novocastrians.
Despite the defeat, Cronulla remains in third position on 20 points and is well placed to secure a top four finish.
The young Sharks were heavily under the pump in the opening 10 minutes of the match, conceding three penalties in a row to hand Newcastle prime field position. They were initially good enough to keep the Knights out with some stout goal-line defence.
But the visitors continued to dominate possession and eventually the Sharks cracked, as Knights winger Elijah Rasiga finished a clever short-side swoop on the right edge.
The strong wind made goal-kicking a nightmare for Justin Worley, who needed a teammate to steady the ball on the tee, and his conversion was waved away.
Dropped ball and ill-discipline cruelled Cronulla, and soon Newcastle would extend its lead. After a grubber from hooker Tom Starling was deflected, the ball fortuitously found Knights second-rower Benjamin Talty, who stormed over next to the posts.
Worley added the extras to make the score 10-nil.
The Sharks looked to work themselves back into the contest and nearly scored when they created an overlap down the right side. Unfortunately, the final pass missed its mark and landed in the lap of Newcastle's Worley.
On the stroke of half-time, Newcastle surged further ahead via a brilliant try to fullback Matthew Cooper.
The conversion was unsuccessful and Cronulla was perhaps lucky to only be down by 14 at the break, having completed just seven of 14 sets in the first stanza and conceding eight penalties.
Cronulla got off the perfect start when play resumed, earning a golden attacking chance following a booming 40/20 kick from Trindall.
And the home team would capitalise immediately, scoring through rampaging prop Cruz Topai-Avea. Trindall converted to reduce the gap to eight points.
The Sharks continued their revival and posted a second try minutes later, when centre Jackson Ferris caught the Knights napping down a slim blind-side channel close to the line. Trindall made no mistakes with the conversion and suddenly the score was 14-12.
It wasn't long before Cronulla hit the front for the first time, after Ferris notched his double when he won the race to an inch-perfect kick in behind the line. Trindall nailed the goal kick to put the Sharks ahead by four.
Newcastle returned serve with a try of its own to set up a grandstand finish. On the back of a Cronulla error, the Knights advanced into offensive territory and locked the scores at 18-all when Rasiga fought his way over in the corner for his brace.
Worley missed the conversion from out wide, but he'd quickly redeem himself when he potted a penalty goal to push his side back into the lead.
The Knights would finally put the gallant Sharks to bed with five minutes to go, touching down through Ofa Manuofetoa.
Cronulla will look to get back in the winner's circle against the Bears next weekend at North Sydney Oval.
Jackson Ferris 2, Cruz Topai-Ovea tries, Bradon Trindall 3 goals