A milestone victory for Cronulla marred a memorable night for three New Zealand Warriors at contrasting points of their NRL careers as the Sharks again proved success is possible despite the absence of inspirational leader Paul Gallen.
Cronulla, who played at Toyota Stadium for the 500th time, enhanced their top eight status with a dramatic 20-19 victory, their second consecutive win without Gallen at the helm in the back row.
The NSW captain had State of Origin commitments for last weekend's win over the Gold Coast Titans and was ruled out of the round 15 clash with Warriors after aggravating a knee injury during the Blues series-levelling triumph on Wednesday night.
Prop Andrew Fifita and back rower Wade Graham were also late defections but the Sharks overcame that adversity to ensure Micheal Luck's first game since last year's Grand Final, Ben Matulino's 100th appearance and Omar Slaimankhel's NRL debut were solemn occasions.
It was also a painful experience for Matulino and Luck who retreated with sternum and knee problems respectively in the third quarter though fortunately they should be available when the Warriors host North Queensland following the bye.
In Gallen's absence Todd Carney, Cronulla's other hero from the series-levelling win over Queensland, stepped up with a clutch play as the Sharks overcame an 11-point deficit inside the final 12 minutes.
After halves partner Jeff Robson slid over between the posts to initiate the comeback, Carney swiftly reeled off a 40-20 to rush the Sharks back into prime attacking position.
Robson quickly made the advantage count when he slithered over for his double before Carney nailed the match-winning conversion.
The Warriors had nine minutes to conjure up a decisive try or slot a field goal to take the game into golden point but Cronulla clung on to improve a place to sixth.
Warriors coach Brian McClennan lamented the Warriors inability to close out what would have been a third away win saying: "We just didn't execute well enough."
Neglecting to set up for a field goal in the dying stages was a glaring example of the Warriors lack of composure down the stretch.
"It's something we should have taken care of a bit better," admitted captain Simon Mannering.
"We shifted from one side of the field to the other instead of being a bit more conservative and taking it back to the posts. It's definitely a lesson learned."
Konrad Hurrell's power and a James Maloney penalty gave the Warriors a 19-8 lead after 56 minutes yet for the second time this season they head into the bye following a loss.
While Matulino and Luck nursed injuries, Slaimankhel experienced a different brand of hurt as Manu Vatuvei's replacement.
He made an inauspicious start when he coughed up the ball 20 metres from his line to instigate Ben Pomeroy's try down the debutant's wing in the sixth minute.
But Slaimankhel was solid when subsequently targeted by Carney's kicking game and could not be blamed when fumbling a poor Shaun Johnson pass when eyeing up his first try in the 68th minute.
"The first involvement was an error and to come back from that is very difficult for a young guy. I thought he showed a lot of fortitude," McClennan said.
Kevin Locke compensated for the rookie's error when he latched on to a Johnson grubber while Maloney's nudge across the posts fell for
Johnson to cap off an impressive recovery after the Sharks dominated the second quarter.
Back rower Luck entered the fray after half an hour and despite the result was delighted to be back.
"It's just a relief to be able to get back and play again. I'm looking forward to many more games this season."
Cronulla Sharks 20 (Jeff Robson 2, Ben Pomeroy tries; Todd Carney 4 goals)
NZ Warriors 19 (Kevin Locke, Shaun Johnson, Konrad Hurrell tries; James Maloney 3 goals; field goal)
- © Fairfax NZ News
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