When Cronulla were beaten by St George Illawarra last week the questions about the Sharks had already started.
Only three rounds into the season with Cronulla having won one and lost two, critics were lining up. Had the premiers lost their hunger?
But Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan, who was filthy with that performance and labelled it Cronulla’s worst in a year, responded calmly. He wasn’t about to hit the panic button.
His side responded on Saturday night, downing Parramatta 20-6 at ANZ Stadium.
And while it was a scrappy match, Cronulla displayed the kind of grit – and fight – to silence the doubters. The Sharks are still hungry.
Cronulla five-eighth James Maloney was at his scheming best for the Sharks and told Fox Sports he was delighted with his team’s defensive effort.
“It was a tough game. It was still probably scrappy. I think defensively we were back where we needed to be and that was pretty pleasing,” he said.
“They [did] throw a lot at us. I thought a lot of the errors were forced by us being in their face and putting pressure on those plays.
“We still turned over too much ball. That’s still an area we need to focus on but really happy just to get the win tonight.”
Cronulla started brightly and took the lead through young hooker Jayden Brailey’s second NRL try on the back of some sharp second phase play.
— NRL (@NRL) March 25, 2017
Wade Graham is fast becoming one of the best back-rowers in the game, almost certain to be chosen for NSW again this season. And the Sharks extended their advantage just before the half hour mark thanks to two efforts from Graham on either side of the ball.
Firstly, he forced an error from Beau Scott to gain possession for Cronulla. Then Graham provided the run and offload for Ricky Leutele to turn the ball backside for Sosaia Feki to score and give the Sharks a 12-0 lead.
Cronulla had a scare just before half-time when Graham went down clutching his left ankle. Graham had hurdled Leutele as the centre attempted a tackle but landed awkwardly. Sharks fans feared the worst when Graham stayed down and the club doctor raced onto the ground. But he managed to run off the injury and got the all clear at half-time.
— NRL (@NRL) March 25, 2017
Moments before the break Parramatta made the most of a bit of good fortune as David Gower scored from a Corey Norman kick. The ball bounced off Leutele back into Gower’s arms to see the Eels reduce the half-time deficit to 12-6.
Cronulla extended their lead to 14-6 five minutes into the second half through a James Maloney penalty goal before the NSW five-eighth put the Sharks further in front.
He may have already ruled out going around for one more year but Sharks captain Paul Gallen was at his tireless best and set up a try for Maloney on 55 minutes.
The former NSW skipper dented the Parramatta line before turning and offloading for Maloney to score next to the posts.
Valentine Holmes made a solid if unspectacular start to life at fullback, with Jack Bird shifting to the centres. Gerard Beale and Feki also returned from hamstring injuries as the Sharks fielded arguably their strongest 17.
It was also the first chance for Cronulla fans to see new signing James Segeyaro in action, with the former Panther replacing Brailey with 22 minutes remaining.
There is more to come from Cronulla but doubters beware. The Sharks are still circling. And there will be more blood in the water.
Cronulla Sharks 20 (Jayden Brailey, Sosaia Feki, James Maloney tries. James Maloney four goals).
Parramatta Eels 6 (David Gower try. Clint Gutherson goal).
Played at ANZ Stadium in front of a crowd of 17,003.
Sharks’ next three: Knights (home), Storm (away), Panthers (away).