The Dyldam Parramatta Eels have been defeated 34-24 by the top-of-the-table Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks in a neck-and-neck contest at Southern Cross Group Stadium on Saturday night.
The match came down to the wire, with the Sharks leading just 28-24 in the dying minutes, and despite a hattrick to young winger Bevan French, the visitors couldn't match the competition leaders as they closed out the game with a try in the final 60 seconds.
With Valentine Holmes sidelined, the Sharks welcomed Ricky Leutele into their back line and former Eels Joseph Paulo onto the bench, while the Eels wasted no time in putting their stamp on the game.
In just the third minute, Eels Captain Beau Scott offloaded out the back to halfback Corey Norman, and hooker Isaac De Gois grubbered in goal to force a repeat set. As pressure built for the Blue and Gold, the Eels earned a quick penalty, and played to the right edge for winger Bevan French to pick up a Corey Norman grubber kick and open the scoring.
A penalty against in the tackle saw the Sharks with a run of opportunity in decent field position, but in the 12th minute, a long pass out to their left edge went to ground and Eels winger Bevan French sprinted through to collect the football and run more than 70 metres to score his second try of the night.
The Sharks threatened close to the line, but the Blue and Gold defensive line held strong early, and on the back of a penalty, the visitors found touch 40 metres out. Heading upfield on the back of strong running through the middle, the Blue and Gold played right, and popped a dummy half pass back to prop Danny Wicks on the inside to steamroll over for a try.
Pinpoint kicking from fullback Michael Gordon gave the Eels an 18-0 lead, but the home side found the accelerator 25 minutes in and began targeting the Eels’ edge defence.
In the 26th minute the Sharks struck on a fifth-tackle play as Sosaia Feki found space on the left edge on the end of a backline shift, and they found the tryline again in the 31st minute via stand-in centre Ricky Leutele.
As the clocked ticked down to halftime, Sam Tagataese found a hold through the middle of the field to put the Sharks inside the 20 metres, and the Sharks bombed high to the right edge for Jason Bukuya to offload just short of the tryline and send Gerard Beale across for a try.
The on-field referee called on the Bunker to check for a knock on, with Beale’s effort ruled a try for insufficient evidence of a no-try.
James Maloney’s boot only added one from three conversions, but a penalty goal late in the first half saw the Eels head back to the sheds with a slim 18-16 lead.
The home side struck early in the second half, with fullback Ben Barba passing to Ricky Leutele in the 45th minute for his second try of the night.
And while the Blue and Gold struggled with ball control, they were tested again and again by the Sharks in attack. With a rare glimpse of field position, winger Bevan French kicked and regathered but a knock on from his centre denied the Eels a try. In return, Sharks prop Paul Gallen came close to the tryline but gave up possession with a double movement to ground the ball.
Starved of field position, the Eels were forced to defend deep in their own end for long stretches, and 69 minutes in, the Sharks found room on the edge for Chad Townsend to pass to Gerard Beale to score in the corner, his second try of the night. Maloney’s conversion gave the Sharks a 28-18 lead with just over 10 minutes of play remaining.
With 7 minutes remaining Bevan French stepped in again with a rushing solo effort from the sideline, stepping back inside the fullback to score. With Gordon adding the extras, the Eels narrowed the margin to just 28-24, opening up the game for a grandstand finish.
It was the home side that found final points to lock up the game in the final sixty seconds, as the Sharks spread the ball left, created an overlap, and Sosaia Feki sailed over in the corner.
A final conversion from Maloney gave the Sharks a 34-24 victory, bringing up their 12th straight win and taking home the Johnny Mannah Cup for 2016.
Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks - 34 (Feki 2, Leutele 2, Beale 2. Maloney: 4/6. Penalty goals - Maloney: 1/1)
Dyldam Parramatta Eels - 24 (French 3, Wicks. Gordon: 4/4)