A dazzling second-half onslaught from reigning premiers Cronulla has set up a 42-16 thrashing of the Raiders in Canberra.
With the Sharks’ credentials to win back-to-back titles having been under question after their first-round loss to Brisbane, they cruised to victory on Saturday night at GIO Stadium.
A superb second half won the game for the Sharks after a scrappy first term.
A Wade Graham hat-trick and a brilliant performance from James Maloney led Cronulla to victory in front of a mostly hostile crowd of 15,087.
Maloney’s creativity sliced Ricky Stuart’s side apart as the Sharks piled on the pain after taking a 12-10 advantage into halftime.
While Michael Ennis wasn’t there to taunt the Viking clap, as he did in Cronulla’s win in Canberra in last year’s finals series, the side’s new hooker Jayden Brailey left his mark on the game with his first NRL try shortly after the break.
To add injury to insult, Joey Leilua went from the ground after a heavy knock to his knee.
The Raiders made a brief attempt to swing back momentum but a Matt Prior try extinguished all hope of a comeback, and Maloney kicked truly to take the Sharks to an insurmountable lead.
Jack Wighton claimed a consolation try for the Raiders in the dying moments, but the damage had been done.
Canberra showed glimpses of last year’s finals form in the first half, with Blake Austin and Wighton putting in impressive performances.
But despite ideal conditions, both side’s handling errors marred the early stages of the game.
Raiders coach Stuart said the game was all but over after 50 minutes.
“You can’t give good teams an inch – we gave them a mile,” Stuart said.
“The first half was as disappointing as the second half.”
Stuart said the side would look to regroup ahead of Sunday week’s game against the Wests Tigers in Canberra.
“They were the better team than us and brought us crunching back down to earth real quick which is a wonderful thing to happen, round two,” Stuart said.
“We can pick our bottom jaws up and we can get going again Monday.”
Sharks coach Shane Flanagan said his side had suffered a couple of first-half lapses before putting in a near-perfect performance in the second 40 minutes.
“I know they scored a try late there but I thought we were clinical, aggressive, controlled the game,” Flanagan said.
“We spoke at halftime and we thought points would come in blocks. I didn’t think they’d come that big.”
Cronulla are set to welcome back fullback Valentine Holmes to face St George Illawarra at home in round three, with Flanagan delighted to have selection headaches.
Cronulla Sharks 42 (Wade Graham 3, Jayden Brailey, Paul Gallen, Ricki Leutele, Matt Prior tries; James Maloney 7 goals) Canberra Raiders 16 (Jack Wighton 2, Jordan Rapana tries; Aidan Sezer 2 goals) at GIO Stadium. Referee: Chris James, Ashley Klein. Crowd: 15,807