Just four weeks after fearing his season was over, Andrew Fifita has confirmed his standing as one of the NRL's best front-rowers by inspiring Cronulla to a dramatic 22-20 defeat of Parramatta.
Given the responsibility of leading the Sharks for the third week in a row after Wade Graham aggravated the hamstring injury which had sidelined him since the costly round six loss to St George Illawarra, Fifita produced another demonstration of his raw power and endurance.
The prop played more than 70 minutes as Cronulla hung on for a heart stopping win.
Despite the closeness of the scoreline, the Eels were never in the contest until David Gower, Michael Jennings and Mitchell Moses crossed for tries in the last five minutes.
Moses missed a sideline conversion of his own try after the fulltime siren to give the Sharks their third successive win without key forwards Paul Gallen, Luke Lewis, Jayson Bukuya and Graham, who lasted 28 minutes before succumbing to the hamstring injury.
Interchange forward Scott Sorensen also suffered a suspected broken hand.
Fifita was injured in the loss to the Dragons and feared he had ruptured his ACL but has since been an inspiration for Cronulla and he carried the ball 149 metres from 18 runs in two stints totalling 71 minutes, which also featured eight tackle breaks, six offloads and a line break.
He also made 41 tackles.
Match: Sharks v Eels
Round 9 -
Venue: Southern Cross Group Stadium
Fifita's impressive work rate followed his 70 minute effort in last weekend's 10-9 defeat of Gold Coast, in which he carried the ball 145 metres, while he played 73 minutes of the Cronulla's 26-22 win over Penrith in round seven, running 130 metres with the ball and making 45 tackles.
The inspirational prop, who has declared his allegiance to Tonga over NSW, set the tone for the match with a rampaging run in the first set of tackles that almost resulted in a try for the hosts.
The Sharks scored their opening try before Parramatta had even touched the ball, with winger Sosaia Feki crossing in the third minute after Matt Moylan shifted the ball quickly to the left edge through Graham and Ricky Luetele.
After finally getting a share of possession through back-to-back penalties and a knock on by Sharks hooker Jayden Brailey, the Eels responded with a try of their own scored in spectacular fashion as winger Bevan French somersaulted over in the 12th minute.
Moylan's inconsistent start to the season continued when a mis-kick bounced over the sideline and he dropped the ball in two successive sets.
However, the Sharks continued to dominate first half proceedings on the back of a 55 per cent possession rate and Feki looked set to cross again in the 26th minute if not for a high tackle by his Eels opposite George Jennings.
The high shot and ensuing penalty only served to delay Feki's second try and he touched down in the corner two minutes later after a cut out pass from halfback Chad Townsend to Luetele created an overlap.
Despite losing Graham as Townsend lined up his conversion attempt, the Sharks continued to gain momentum and the halfback extended their lead to 16-4 when he backed up Valentine Holmes to score in the 32nd minute.
Playing fullback for just the third time in the opening nine rounds, Holmes showed the power and speed that earned him record six tries in a match for Australia by shrugging off the attempted tackles of Manu Ma'u and Clint Gutherson and racing 30 metres before passing to Townsend.
A 49th minute try to Cronulla's right winger Edrick Lee put paid to any hopes of a second half comeback by Parramatta and 66th minute penalty goal by Townsend appeared to put the result beyond doubt.
However, the Eels crossed for three tries in the final five minutes to ensure a gripping finish to the match.
News & Notes: Wade Graham suffered a recurrence of a hamstring injury and left the field in the 28th minute...The Sharks have now won five straight against the Eels...Parramatta are the lowest scoring team in the NRL in 2018 with 134 points in nine games...Playing in his eighth NRL game, Scott Sorensen joined the Sharks' long injury list when he broke his hand in the first half.