A clinical first-half display from the Cronulla Sharks has set up an important 28-24 victory over the Canberra Raiders at Southern Cross Group Stadium.
It was a freezing night in the Sutherland Shire, but the sizzling Sharks' attack lit up the fans in the opening stanza as the home side sped to a 22-6 lead at half-time.
They then had to contain a vastly improved Raiders outfit in the second 40 minutes. In holding them out, the Sharks claimed the Kokoda Challenge Cup for the first time.
While Canberra had won the past four matches at Shark Park, dating back to 2013, Cronulla's performance ensured the streak would not extend to a fifth year. The win currently places the Sharks in the top four; whether they stay there at the conclusion of the round will depend on other results.
The only dampener for the Sharks is an injury to Wade Graham, who didn't return for the second-half due to a groin issue.
Cronulla enjoyed a favourable start to the game, forcing a Raiders error on the second tackle of the match before receiving a penalty in attacking range. Still, it didn't translate to points straight away.
It wasn't long before the Sharks were pressing the advantage again. Raiders winger Jordan Rapana was sin-binned for a professional foul, leaving the visitors down to 12 men and defending their own goal-line.
Although they didn't strike immediately, the Sharks soon capitalised on the early momentum when Andrew Fifita produced a monstrous effort close to the line. The hulking prop shrugged off a horde of defenders and drove his way into the in-goal for a fantastic solo try.
Halfback Chad Townsend converted from right in front to give the Sharks a 6-0 lead.
Cronulla went straight back on the attack after scoring and camped in Raiders' territory. Townsend was afforded a shot at penalty goal following a Canberra indiscretion, but his attempt struck the woodwork and bounced over the dead-ball line.
However, that missed goal would turn out to be a huge blessing in disguise.
After the resulting 20-metre drop-out from Canberra, Cronulla launched a slick raid down the left edge. The end product was a lovely inside offload from Edrick Lee onto the chest of a flying Ricky Leutele, who crashed across the chalk for a four-pointer.
Townsend found his range from the touchline and converted, pushing the score to 12-0.
Canberra returned serve in the 23rd minute via fullback Brad Abbey. Rapana, back on the field following his time in the bin, made a strong bust out of dummy-half that laid the groundwork for the supporting Abbey.
Raiders five-eighth Sam Williams converted, reducing the margin to a converted try.
The Sharks then entertained the crowd with some enterprising offensive play, but a third try remained elusive for the moment. Valentine Holmes in particular began to look extremely dangerous as he sniffed around the ruck for space.
And, sure enough, it would be Holmes who broke through in the shadows of half-time.
Cronulla spun the ball wide to the speedy fullback on the right-hand side, and a big side-step against the grain from Holmes was enough to see him slip past the defence and onto the scoreboard.
Townsend made no mistakes with the goal-kick and the Sharks were up 18-6.
Cronulla wasn't done with in the first-half yet. Co-captain Wade Graham powerfully crashed over for a try from dummy-half with mere seconds remaining until the break.
Townsend's conversion missed, but the Sharks were deservedly given a rousing reception from the appreciative crowd as they made their way to the sheds.
Canberra began fast in the second stanza, notching a try after only a minute and a half. Blake Austin cunningly took a quick tap 10 metres out and was able to unload in traffic for Joseph Leilua to score.
Williams converted; the score now 22-10.
The Raiders piled on the pressure afterwards and nearly scored on consecutive plays in one set – but some desperate Sharks defence held the ball up on each occasion.
Leilua couldn't be halted minutes later, though, with the powerful centre carrying Sharks defenders on his back as he touched down for his double.
Williams again added the extras and suddenly Canberra was within a converted try of the Sharks.
Cronulla finally stopped the rot in the 58th minute when winger Sione Katoa scored. While the Raiders players stopped dead, suspecting a knock-on in the lead-up, Katoa played to the whistle and grounded the ball – and he was vindicated by the Bunker.
Townsend converted to put the Sharks ahead by 10.
A try Rapana in the 76th minute made for a tense ending to the match, but the Sharks were able to see it through for a gritty win.
Cronulla will travel to Brisbane next week for a clash with the finals-bound Broncos.
Ricky Leutele, Sione Katoa, Andrew Fifita, Valentine Holmes, Wade Graham tries, Chad Townsend 4 goals