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The Warriors are out of the 2020 NRL finals race with two rounds to go after a devastating 22-14 loss at the hands of Cronulla Sharks, who simultaneously confirmed their spot in the playoffs.

Clawing back from a 12-point deficit and clinging to a two-point lead with seven minutes remaining, the Warriors leaked two late tries to the erratic and under-strength but effervescent Sharks.

The Warriors were crippled by their lack of variety and inventiveness in attack. Flashes of genius from Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Peta Hiku pegged them back into the game after Shaun Johnson’s short kicking game had established a double-digit lead, but halves Kodi Nikorima and Chanel Harris-Tavita passing the ball inside to lumbering forwards ad nauseam near the Sharks’ line saw set after attacking set go to waste.

The key stats were remarkably even across the board – except for another Warriors pasting in the penalty count. While nowhere near in the same region as last week’s debacle against Parramatta, the rub of the green from the officials certainly went the way of Cronulla. But several of the penalties against the Warriors were deserved and totally unnecessary.

As Todd Payten said post-match, the Warriors probably got what deserved in the end.

An early line-break for Jack Murchie saw the Warriors with their tails up early, but they gave up a succession of penalties to piggy-back the Sharks out of their own end.

Shaun Johnson – returning from a three-match layoff and captaining an NRL side for the first time – thwarted his former club yet again with a beautiful mid-set grubber, which flying winger Sione Katoa breezed through to collect for the opening try.

The ensuing 10 minutes saw a litany of errors and sloppy play belying the extraordinary stakes.

The Warriors found some continuity and field position, troubling the Sharks with their second-phase play. Chanel Harris-Tavita, on the back of his own forced line dropout, looked certain to score but Johnson’s cover tackle knocked the ball loose.

Johnson bobbed up on the left side on the last tackle in the 31st minute and dabbed a kick through for Cronulla’s other winger, Ronaldo Mulitalo, to double the lead.

Johnson landed the conversion then pushed the scoreline out to 12-0 after the Warriors were pinged twice more in quick succession after the resumption.

But the visitors – looking flat as a pancake – sparked into life with just three minutes left in the first half. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck made a half-break and offloaded brilliantly for Murchie, who backed up on the inside to score the Warriors’ first try.

A 12-6 scoreboard was a far more palatable result after a scrappy and ill-disciplined opening 40 minutes.

The Warriors had the first scoring opportunity of the second half but wasted it as an out-of-sorts George Jennings was bundled into touch on the first tackle. But their resolve at the other end was impressive, warding off a series of Sharks raids.

When the Warriors finally found favour from the referee’s whistle via a couple of consecutive penalties, they struck back to level in the 52nd minute. Peta Hiku added another try-assist to his 2020 catalogue – and this was arguably his most sensational yet, passing blind with his back turned to send Adam Pompey in.

Harris-Tavita nailed the sideline conversion for 12-all.

CHT’s boot gave the Warriors their first lead of the match with 17 minutes to go, drilling a penalty goal from 40 metres out.

A 14-12 advantage did not look enough to get home, but the Warriors’ bland attack despite multiple shots at the Sharks’ line indicated they had no interest in putting the game out of reach.

Agonisingly, after yet another penalty to the Sharks, the contract-reneging Toby Rudolf sent defenders scattering on a 10-metre charge to the try-line – his first in the NRL. The Warriors’ desperate attempts to hit back fell short and Mulitalo sealed his side’s finals spot with a trademark dive to the corner.

The most frustrating aspect of the loss was the Warriors beat themselves – a trait they had shelved in recent times. Though not in the same ballpark, it was their worst performance collectively, for many individuals and across most departments since the Round 10 drubbing from the Sharks.

With the playoffs now out of reach, the Warriors confront another big mental hurdle as the aim to finish an unquestionably admirable and positive note.

If the character and resolve they’ve shown over the last two months is a gauge, pride will be enough for the sentimental favourites to push Canberra and Manly all the way in the last fortnight of the regular season.

Cronulla Sharks 22 (Ronaldo Mulitalo 2, Sione Katoa, Toby Rudolf tries; Shaun Johnson 3 goals) defeated Warriors 14 (Jack Murchie, Adam Pompey tries; Chanel Harris-Tavita 3 goals) at Jubilee Oval

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