Cronulla coach Craig Fitzgibbon lauded his side’s toughness as they celebrated their return to PointsBet Stadium with a dramatic 79th-minute try from Teig Wilton sealing a 18-16 NRL win over Parramatta.
Saturday’s game was Cronulla’s first at home in over two years and doubled as Fitzgibbon’s debut as Sharks coach after he missed last week’s loss to Canberra with COVID-19.
Cronulla’s lack of discipline and halfback Nicho Hynes’ inaccuracy with the boot (one from four attempts) nearly cost them until Wilton burrowed over in the last minute and Hynes converted when it mattered most.
“We did it the hard way,” Fitzgibbon said with a smile.
“I was proud of the way we played. That was a high quality game in my opinion.
“They (Parramatta) are a serious footy team and they kept coming and we probably hurt ourselves.
“To keep hanging in, I felt like we just needed some opportunities and when we got them we did enough.”
In a game in which the lead changed five times, the Sharks began brightly when wingers Ronaldo Mulitalo and Sione Katoa scored on either flank in the opening half hour.
Unfortunately for Cronulla, Hynes was unable to convert either Sharks tries and Parramatta cut the deficit to 8-6 when Mitchell Moses scored on the stroke of halftime.
With nothing much happening, Moses took advantage of a flat-footed Cronulla defensive line and chipped over the top.
Eels skipper Clint Gutherson tapped the ball inside to five-eighth Dylan Brown who sent it onto Moses to touch down under heavy pressure from Jesse Ramien.
Moses appeared to be struggling with a thigh complaint and Gutherson converted the try before adding a penalty in front of the sticks early in the second half when Wilton tackled Ray Stone off the ball.
Wilton’s ill-discipline again allowed Parramatta back into the game when he illegally tackled Moses in the air while kicking with Gutherson notching the ensuing penalty.
Fitzgibbon brought new recruit Cameron McInnes into the fray to a large cheer from the crowd of 11,459.
His introduction seemed to be the spark the Sharks needed, with Hynes setting Connor Tracey up to score with 20 minutes to go.
Any optimism seemed short-lived when Reed Mahoney scored to put the Eels ahead with 15 minutes to go before Cronulla’s Braden Hamlin-Uele dropped the ball over the line.
But then Wilton steamed onto a Matt Moylan pass and scored his late try, converted by Hynes, to send the home supporters into a frenzy.
“We did enough to win the game but we’ve got to close that out,” Eels coach Brad Arthur said.
“I didn’t feel like we matched them physically and played sideways.
“We’ve got to start physically and grind instead of looking for all out footy.”