The Cronulla Sharks have fought off a second half comeback from the Canberra Raiders tonight to notch a 28-24 victory at Southern Cross Group Stadium in front of 10016 fans.
The home team looked sharp with the ball in hand from the outset, but it was the brute force of big man Andrew Fifita who bumped off multiple defenders to cross for the opening try in the 11th minute with the conversion from halfback Chad Townsend giving them a 6-0 lead.
A piece of champagne rugby league resulted in the Sharks second four-pointer when a slick back-line movement to the left resulted in a cut-out pass from fullback Valentine Holmes to Edrick Lee who in turn threw a great ball back on the inside for Ricky Leutele to cross in the 18th minute.
Townsend again added the extras to hand the home team a strong twelve point lead inside the opening quarter.
The Sharks continued to look dangerous with the ball in hand, but a try against the run of play to custodian Brad Abbey in the 23rd minute in which the Joey Leilua and Jordan Rapana duo featured prominently in the lead-up got the Raiders back in the contest.
Any momentum the Raiders regained was short lived though and a mistake from bench forward Luke Bateman would soon prove costly. The Sharks quickly went on the attack and a ball from Townsend saw man of the match Holmes beat his man on the inside with considerable ease to gift his team an 18-6 lead in the 35th minute.
That wouldn't be the end of the opening half onslaught either with back-rower Wade Graham barging over from dummy half on the stroke of half time to give his team a 22-6 lead in arguably their best half of attacking footy for the year.
With their season on the line, it didn't take long for the Raiders to show their desperation and claw their way back into the contest early in the second stanza.
An unforced error from the Sharks in the opening set gifted them a chance and blockbusting centre Joseph Leilua capitalized off a quick tap and offload from Blake Austin to dive over in the 43rd minute.
A second try shortly after from Leilua, this time running off Josh Hodgson and the comeback was on in earnest with the deficit reduced to just four in the 49th minute.
The comeback was halted ten minutes later however when a controversial try was awarded to young Sharks winger Sione Katoa in the 58th minute.
Following a back-line movement to the right, the ball seemingly deflected off Jesse Ramien's right arm before Katoa picked it up to race over. The bunker ruled there was no touch however and the Sharks lead 28-18 going into the final twenty.
The game ebbed and flowed for the remaining quarter until Rapana took advantage of some space created by Sam Williams to cross in the 78th minute and set up a grandstand finish.
Unable to come up with a match winner in the ensuing set of six, the Raiders season now hangs on life support as they sit and wait for results to go their way. The job doesn't get any easier with an away trip to AAMI Park against the Melbourne Storm on the agenda next Saturday night.
The Sharks meanwhile entrench themselves firmly into the race for the top four and will do battle with the Brisbane Broncos at Suncorp Stadium next Thursday night.