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That must have been one hell of a game to watch for a neutral observer – but that doesn’t make the Warriors’ 18-15 loss to Cronulla any easier to stomach.

The Warriors endured a painful 2018 first after a gruelling, nerve-shredding and controversial clash with the Sharks: a close loss.

Each of the Warriors’ four previous defeats were convincing. An overlooked feature of their breakout campaign has been closing out games when they find themselves with a second-half lead. Not this time.

But they also haven’t encountered as woeful a refereeing display as Adam Gee and Chris Butler produced, the pair duped into ridiculous penalties and capping a dud night with the whistle by allowing a petty-damn-obvious forward pass go for Edrick Lee’s late match-winner.

Things started so well though.

The Warriors brushed their line-up disruptions off – with the aid of a couple of bad Cronulla bungles – to make arguably their hottest start of the season.

Outstanding work on the edge from Isaiah Papali’i produced the opener for Solomone Kata, before Anthony Gelling celebrated his recall to the first-grade side after a two-month absence by powering over off a flat Shaun Johnson pass close to the try-line.

Gelling’s Bad Grandpa try celebration enhanced his burgeoning cult-hero status, while Johnson converted both tries for a 12-0 lead after eight minutes.

But rookie centre wrecking ball Jesse Ramien pegged one back on Kata when he barrelled over out wide to put the Sharks on the board soon afterwards.

With momentum finally on their side, the broken-field running of Valentine Holmes and the class of Chad Townsend and Matt Moylan started to make the Warriors’ defence look second-rate.

A very ordinary application of the advantage rule after Townsend bombed a try gave the Sharks another bite at the cherry down the Warriors’ end, allowing Valentine Holmes and Ricky Leutele to combine and send Edrick Lee over in the 24th minute.

Stephen Kearney clearly instructed his halves to kick early in the set, but the tactic was facepalmingly ineffective with the Warriors battling in the middle of the park – all it served to do was give the Sharks’ menacing back-three cheap pill on the full around the 30-metre line.

Struggling to regain anything like handy field position, the Warriors were fortunate not to concede further try-line breaches. The hosts were probably relieved when the Sharks opted to let Townsend level the scores with a simple penalty goal in the 38th minute.

The Warriors made a sprightly start to the second half and had a couple of early cracks at the Sharks’ line but dusty execution and poor handling let them down.

Paul Gallen played the referees like a fiddle, tricking them into pinging Chris Satae in possession. Another highly contentious penalty against Papali’i after a one-on-one strip seconds later – extending the count to 8-3 in the Sharks’ favour – saw Townsend edge the visitors in front for the first time with 24 minutes left.

The Warriors wrested a bit of momentum back as the match headed into the final 15 minutes and ended an hour-long points drought with an easy Johnson penalty leveller.

Shaun Johnson looked to have iced another famous 2018 win with a sharp 74th-minute field goal and for a few blissful seconds the victory seemed assured, Issac Luke charging over under the posts from a Holmes dropped ball.

But Luke was correctly, agonisingly ruled offside and Cronulla moved into position for a one-pointer. The Warriors charged Matt Moylan down, but Simon Mannering inexplicably couldn’t clean up the bouncing ball and the Sharks regained it for another set.

The Warriors’ torrid night at the hands of incompetent officiating reached a somewhat fitting conclusion as a blatant forward pass sent Edrick Lee in for the match-winning try.

The result hurts, particularly when there were half a dozen make-or-break moments in the dying stages that all went against them, either through their own failings or excruciatingly bad luck. They blew it, but they were also dudded.

It will also see them drop out of the top four by the end of the night.

But more importantly for the Warriors’ bigger picture, it proved they could get down and dirty with the dirtiest teams in the competition. They were under the pump – and have crumbled in similar circumstances against the NRL’s better sides recently.

And Roger Tuivasa-Sheck was easily the best player on the field. Critics may look at his 2015 campaign lovingly through red, white and blue-tinted glasses, but he is a far more rounded fullback now.

The absence of Ken Maumalo, David Fusitu’a and Adam Blair can’t be discounted either, though the Sharks were also far from full-strength.

They couldn’t close it out but it was a vital building block if they can channel this pain and parlay it into a strong run home. An Origin-depleted Penrith next Friday will give them an ideal opportunity to put lessons learned into practice.

But to the victors, the spoils – and the last word belonged to Paul Gallen, the most insufferable personality in rugby league history.


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