By Peter Jessup
The Auckland Warriors played their hearts out, held the lead four times, but made some crucial errors that let competition leaders the Cronulla Sharks back for a 22-20 win at Ericsson last night.
The conditions were more suited to water polo but both sides turned on a committed, entertaining game. The Sharks do that all the time and consequently are joint leaders of the competition. For the Warriors it was further proof they are finally turning into a real football team.
The home side started strongly, big hits and invention on attack giving territory that allowed John Simon an easy two points when he was taken out of play.
Cronulla chose to run a couple of similar penalties, Chris McKenna freeing his arms to pick up Adam Dykes on the run-around for the first try. But the pressure Auckland put on the Sharks' attack by moving quickly off the mark forced repeat mistakes that saved two more.
Then enthusiasm produced a miracle. A fifth-tackle kick that came off John Simon's boot was hacked through, wing Odell Manuel scooped it and fed inside to Simon, who went to fullback Lee Oudenryn to score beneath the posts.
A casual response to a Mitch Healey bomb saw Sharks fullback David Peachey clean up and give Healey an easy conversion to lead 10-8 at the break.
The second spell started with excitement from Stacey Jones who scored leaving the Sharks standing and allowing Simon another easy kick for 14-10.
Then followed a long session of arm wrestling, neither side able to crack the other thanks to pumelling defence. The Warriors looked most likely until Brett Howland latched onto a long ball from Terry Hermansson and outran the cover for a 90m try. The home team was 14-16 down but showing no signs of despondency.
Shorty Robert Mears reversed it with another of his squirts under the outstretched arms of tacklers going too high and another easy job for Simon made it 20-16.
Then came a comedy of errors, two knock-ons and a stripped ball turned possession twice with Sharks wing Colin Best having last go for a try out wide, Healey lobbing the ball over for last points.
But the other top eight teams yet to face the Warriors better watch out. This isn't the side they've known in the past. And get your top-eight money on for the 2000 season early. These guys are going to be a good bet.
Auckland 20 (Lee Oudenryn, Stacey Jones, Robert Mears tries; John Simon 3 conversions, penalty). Cronulla 22 (Adam Dykes, David Peachey, Brett Howland, Colin Best tries; Mitch Healey 3 conversions). Halftime Cronulla 10-8.