The Cronulla Sharks might have enjoyed a second-half feeding frenzy, but Canberra Raiders coach Ricky Stuart thought his team’s first half wasn’t much better.
A James Maloney masterclass and a Wade Graham hat-trick sunk the Green Machine in front of 15,807 fans – their biggest first-up home crowd since 2002.
A combination of sloppy handling and some poor defensive reads also contributed to the Raiders going down 42-16 at Canberra Stadium on Saturday night.
It leaves a depleted Raiders winless after a tough opening two games of the season and they’ll wait to see how star centre Joey Leilua (knee) and Josh Hodgson (ankle) pull up during the week.
What was billed as a big clash between last years premiers and one of the favourites for this year’s premiership went from the expected armwrestle of a first half into a blowout in the second as the Sharks showed they’re far from a spent force.
The Raiders’ effort was especially disappointing given last week’s gutsy golden-point loss to North Queensland in Townsville.
Cronulla opened the scoring with a penalty before the Raiders hit back through a Jack Wighton try.
He was one of the few positives for Canberra, running for 198 metres on the night in his return from illness.
The Raiders fullback also scored a consolation try for the home side in the dying minutes, but the rout was complete.
Sharks Ricky Leutele and Graham both scored to put the visitors back in front as they began to expose the Raiders’ right edge, which became a theme of the night.
Raiders five-eighth Blake Austin then produced some brilliant footwork to put winger Jordan Rapana away and make it just a two-point game at half-time.
But the contest ended there.
“The first half was as disappointing as the second half. Individually we were poor. The same old story from every losing coach I suppose,” Stuart said.
“Tackle-five penalties, not playing the ball correctly, on early tackle count losing possession. You can’t give good teams an inch, and we gave them a mile and the took it.
“They were very balanced, very good tonight. They started the game well, their bench came on and dictated us. The game was pretty much gone after 50-odd minutes.”
The Sharks came flying out of the sheds and ran in five unanswered tries as they tore the Raiders apart in the second half.
Cronulla veteran forward Luke Lewis created rookie hooker Jayden Brailey’s first NRL try and then Graham scored consecutive tries to bring up his hat-trick.
Fellow forwards Matt Prior and Paul Gallen joined in on the act as the Raiders faithful headed for their cars.
Wighton’s consolation try was a minor blip for Sharks coach Shane Flanagan on what he thought was a near flawless 40 minutes.
“It was probably a 70-minute performance. We had a lapse or two in the first half, but in the second half we were pretty close to perfect,” Flanagan said.
“I know they scored a try late there, but I thought we were clinical, we were aggressive, we controlled the game.
“When we spoke at half-time we thought points would come in blocks, we didn’t think they’d come in that big. We stuck to our plan and being consistent.
“When their two front rowers went off we went to another level and I was really pleased with the effort.”
The Raiders will look for their first win of the season and welcome prop Clay Priest back from suspension when they host the Wests Tigers next Sunday.
When asked if he expected the Raiders to bounce back from the hefty defeat, Cronulla captain Gallen was his usual straight-shooting self.
“That’s not my problem. I’m not worried about that, I’ve got a big game next week [against St George Illawarra],” he said.
AT A GLANCE
CRONULLA SHARKS 42 (Wade Graham 3, Ricky Leutele, Jayden Brailey, Matt Prior, Paul Gallen tries; James Maloney 7 goals) bt CANBERRA RAIDERS 16 (Jack Wighton 2, Jordan Rapana tries; Aidan Sezer 2 goals) at Canberra Stadium. Referees: Ashley Klein and Chris James. Crowd: 15,807.