A strong second-half resistance, in spite of the loss of Josh Papalii to the sin bin, has seen the Canberra Raiders pocket back-to-back victories in a 30-12 must-win clash against the Cronulla Sharks at Southern Cross Group Stadium on Saturday night.
A 50th-minute try to Sharks winger Gerard Beale saw the hosts reduce the deficit to 24-12 after the Raiders had rollicked to a 24-8 half-time lead, but the Green Machine would again put on the afterburners to ensure its finals hopes continue to flicker.
Papalii was sent to the bin for a professional foul in the 57th minute, before a litany of Cronulla brain snaps would see captain Jarrod Croker slot three penalty goals inside the space of six minutes to put the game beyond all doubt.
It was the combination of a number of barnstorming sets and slick, quick-fire passing that continually marched the Raiders into territories in which the skipper was able to opt for the two time and again.
The Sharks were first to hit the scoreboard when an unmarked Sosaia Feki collected a Ricky Leutele ball in the fifth minute to cross on the left edge, Valentine Holmes adding the extras to hand the hosts a 6-0 buffer.
Cronulla marched back into Canberra territory shortly after off the back of a penalty, before banging over an 11th-minute penalty goal after another blow of the whistle straight in front of the uprights to extend its lead to 8-0.
But the Raiders would grit their teeth, bashing down the door into Sharks territory through a number of hard-hitting hit-ups and a pair of back-to-back penalties.
They would capitalise on the optimal field position when Papalii – full of vigour off the back of a two-match stint on the sidelines – steamed on to a Josh Hodgson short ball from close range 14 minutes in.
Croker made no mistake from the tee to make things 8-6, before the skipper squared things up at eight-apiece after the Raiders earned a penalty of their own.
The Green Machine continued to surge off the back of a number of rollicking sets of six, scintillating winger Jordan Rapana latching on to a soaring left-to-right Blake Austin punt in the 21st minute to bag his 15th try of the season that Croker would convert to make things 14-8.
The Kiwi international’s try not only meant the Raiders’ first two tries of the game came through players returning from suspension, but that Rapana has now crossed for a four-pointer in every one of his five most recent games against the Sharks.
The 27-year-old came back to haunt the defending premiers five minutes from the break, reigniting the iconic ‘Leipana’ combination when he gloved a Joey Leilua ball from dummy-half on the Sharks’ line to ice a cunning blindside play.
Croker’s touchline conversion wrapped the woodwork, but the Green Machine would continue its rampage.
It was the Englishmen who would combine forces to pocket the Raiders’ fourth try of the night, second-row Elliott Whitehead poking his nose through a feeble Sharks defence before linking with a scooting Hodgson on his outside.
The rake would fool the scampering Cronulla defence with a beguiling dummy, piercing a yawning gap to race away in the shadows of half-time.
Croker again proved faultless from the tee as Ricky Stuart’s men took a 24-8 lead into the break, before Canberra continued to assert authority in the second term when Leilua rag-dolled Leutele into touch five minutes in.
It was the Sharks who would impact on the scoreboard when Beale galloped down the right edge off the back of a scrum to claw his side back into the game, but it was the Raiders who ran away with the game despite Papalii’s 10-minute absence.
The Raiders are now set to try as they might to keep their finals aspirations alive in a clash with the New Zealand Warriors next Sunday afternoon.