Wests Tigers have gone down in agonising fashion to the Cronulla Sharks on Saturday night, with the visitors snatching a 24-22 win on the full-time siren.
Leading 16-4 midway through the second half and looking destined to end a run of five consecutive defeats, it took a 79th minute effort from Jayson Bukuya off a kick from Daniel Mortimer to give the Sharks the lead and consign Wests Tigers to defeat.
The match began in less than ideal fashion for Ava Seumanufagai in celebrating his 100th first-grade game, sent to the sin bin after only three minutes of the game for repeated infringements in the ruck saw him deny Cronulla a quick tap opportunity.
However, despite the man advantage, Cronulla couldn’t make their opponents pay.
The home side would eventually post first points after 20 minutes when Edrick Lee somehow managed to get the ball away for Kurt Capewell to grab his maiden NRL try in the corner, despite question marks remaining about the pass in the build-up.
Chad Townsend was unable to convert from the sideline, leaving the score at 4-0.
Wests Tigers would hit back moments later, however, with debutant Matt Eisenhuth combining perfectly with captain Elijah Taylor close to the line to put the skipper over, with Tui Lolohea adding the extras to give Wests Tigers their first lead of the night.
After a desperate try-saver from David Nofoaluma stopped a runaway Gerard Beale, Wests Tigers would work the ball upfield and after earning a repeat set through Kevin Naiqama, would cross for their second try of the night through Esan Marsters who crashed his way over from dummy half in his first starting appearance in the NRL.
Lolohea again showed a cool head from close range, giving Wests Tigers a 12-4 lead.
Desperate to hold on to their eight-point lead heading in to half-time, Ivan Cleary’s side had a frantic few moments right on the break with Lee almost crossing for his second in the corner, with only a desperate dive and tap from Luke Brooks saving the day to ensure the visitors hit the sheds at Southern Cross Group Stadium leading 12-4.
After another impressive stint off the interchange bench, Jacob Liddle was rewarded with his second try of the season following a clever effort from dummy half.
Lolohea was unable to add the extras from close to the posts, leaving the score at 16-4.
With Daniel Mortimer brought on to the field for Jayden Brailey, Cronulla would quickly strike back off a lovely inside ball — Chad Townsend just managing to get away from the clutches of Brooks to wrestle his way over, converting to cut the visitors’ lead to 16-10.
The home side were full of running and set the match up for a grandstand finish with 15 minutes to play when Capewell was controversially ruled to have not produced a double movement in scoring, with Townsend’s missed conversion leaving the score at 16-14.
But off the back of a great chase from Marsters and follow-up tackle from Kyle Lovett, Wests Tigers were able to restore their eight-point lead through Malakai Watene-Zelezniak after a magic cut-out pass from Naiqama caught Lee out of position.
Lolohea’s clutch sideline conversion pushed the visitors’ lead to 22-14, before Lee made up for his effort with a try five minutes from full-time cutting the score to 22-20.
With a grandstand finish putting the crowd on their feet, it was Mortimer who came up with the smart play to win the game for the home side — finding the in-goal with his grubber moments from full-time, allowing Bukuya to dive on the loose ball and score.
Wests Tigers will look to bounce back from tonight’s defeat when they take on the Gold Coast Titans next Friday night at Campbelltown Sports Stadium with kickoff at 7:50pm.
Cronulla Sharks 24 (Capewell 2, Townsend, Lee, Bukuya tries; Townsend 2/5 goals) def. Wests Tigers 22 (Taylor, Marsters, Liddle, Watene-Zelezniak tries; Lolohea 3/4 goals)