Canberra beats Cronulla to maintain playoffs charge in NRL

SYDNEY — Canberra continued its late drive toward the National Rugby League playoffs with a 30-12 win over defending champion Cronulla in the weekend's 22nd round.

The Raiders' third win in four games lifted them within two points of the top-eight playoffs zone and sent a message to rivals that they are nearing the form that carried them to last season's preliminary final.

The first half included Canberra's best 30 minutes of the season. Cronulla led 8-0 after 10 minutes but Canberra rallied to lead 24-8 at halftime and was able to hold on when Josh Papali'i was sin-binned in the second half.

Papali'i scored Canberra's first try, Jordan Rapana had a double before halftime and Josh Hodgson dummied his way through the defense just before the break to give Cronulla a commanding lead.

Canberra was one of the best attacking teams in the NRL last season, winning many of its games by large margins. Coach Ricky Stuart said his players hadn't heeded his warning that they would face tighter games this season and had shown a lack of toughness. Eight of Canberra's 11 losses this year have been by margins of less than 10 points.

"I said that at the start of the year and everyone laughed at me," Stuart said. "I said we're not going to win games by big scores.

"Everyone thought 'Aren't you going to attack like you did last year?' We can't. We've been hunted by a lot of teams and they've been successful in getting us. We've been in a lot of the close games and we haven't been good enough to win them."

Cronulla dropped back to fourth, level on points with third-placed Brisbane which beat Gold Coast 54-0 on Saturday, and fifth-placed Parramatta, which beat the Bulldogs 20-4.

In other matches, Souths edged St. George Illawarra 26-24, leaving the Dragons clinging to eighth place under increasing pressure from ninth-placed Penrith and Canberra. Penrith could move up to eighth with a win over Wests on Sunday.

Newcastle beat the New Zealand Warriors 26-10, moving within two points of Wests and giving itself some hope of avoiding last place. The Warriors' fifth-straight loss left them in 12th and out of playoffs contention.

Ben Hunt produced an outstanding performance as stand-in for injured hooker Andrew McCullough, coming off the bench to score three of Brisbane's 10 tries and setting up two others in a record win over Gold Coast. The loss was the largest the Titans have suffered in the NRL.

"Not having Andrew there it's nice to see what they did tonight," Brisbane coach Wayne Bennett said. "That's what (Hunt) brings. That's what we want. He's a threat there.

"We're going to have you under a fair bit of pressure if we defend well. But it's still a work in progress there. There's a lot more tougher teams than we played tonight in front of us and we'll be challenged."

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