The Illawarra Steelers SG Ball side's fairy tale finals run has come to an end thanks to minor premiers the Cronulla Sharks who ran out 38-14 preliminary finals winners at Southern Cross Group Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
The Steelers started promisingly in the fourth minute when hooker Jye Richards caught Cronulla defenders napping and burrowed over from dummy half.
Illawarra were on a roll and just minutes later it were the halves who stepped up when five-eighth Zaan Weatherall produced a clever grubber in-goal that was pounced on by Blair Grant to hand the Steelers a shock 10-0 lead.
The Sharks hit back when a determined run by centre Bronson Xerri close to the try-line brought the margin back to four.
Right on half-time, both teams were reduced to twelve men after a big scuffle saw Cronulla hooker Isaac Longmuir and Steelers prop Joshua Uta sent to the sin-bin.
Despite the blue, the Steelers went to half-time with a narrow 10-6 lead.
Illawarra went further ahead in the second half when a cross-field kick from Weatherall was well taken by winger Sam McCann, who showed terrific skill to score with little room to spare.
Unfortunately, that was the last scoring play for the visitors who had to make do without fullback Tyson Simpson and Grant for the rest of the game through injury.
Sharks prop Franklin Pele quickly took advantage when he scored under the posts. This was quickly followed by a four-pointer to lock Monty Raper, who proved unstoppable close to the line.
Xerri's second try of the afternoon, two tries to five-eighth Jaeman Salmon and another through back-rower Teig Wilton rounded out the Sharks' 24-point win.
Winger McCann was disappointed with the end result.
"We started well in the first half but we were run over at the end. They put points on us and we couldn’t claw it back. We’ve been going great all year, but it was just an unlucky result," McCann said.
"We didn’t start the season well, we probably didn’t think we would get this far but to get top four is a massive effort from the boys. We’ve put in all season and we deserve to get this far."
While disappointed, coach Shane Millard but could see nothing but positives in regards to the Steelers' season.
"I thought we started well, we needed to. The Sharks are the best team in the comp, and have been all year and the improvement in our blokes has been exceptional," Millard said.
"We put ourselves in a position at the start of the year where we didn’t think we'd get this far. I’m super proud of our blokes and the effort they put in all year.
"To get one game away (from the grand final), it’s certainly not embarrassing to get beaten by the team that will probably win the comp."
Cronulla Sharks 38 (Bronson Xerri 2, Jaeman Salmon 2, Franklin Pele, Monty Raper, Teig Wilson tries, Luke Metcalf 5 goals) defeated Illawarra Steelers 14 (Jye Richards, Blair Grant, Sam McCann tries, Zaan Weatherall 1 goal) at Southern Cross Group Stadium. Half-time: Steelers 10-6.
The Illawarra Steelers' Tarsha Gale Cup side's season is also over following their heartbreaking 32-28 loss to the Penrith Panthers at Southern Cross Group Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
The Panthers were first to cross early in the game when centre Emily Perring found room out wide.
Moments later, Illawarra co-captain Keeley Davis found space up the middle and scored under the posts. Davis converted her own try to give the Steelers a 6-4 lead.
That didn’t last long as the Panthers hit back, yet again, with Perring crossing for her second.
In the shadows of quarter time, winger Cassie Ormsby found more room out wide and scored to give the Panthers a 12-6 lead.
The Panthers started the second quarter as they finished the first when back rower Christian Pio barged over to hand her side a 12-point lead.
Illawarra hit straight back in the following set when fullback Rikeya Horne found space out wide to put the Steelers back in the contest.
Davis crossed for her second soon after and it was game on at 18-14.
Panther Leone Tuivaiti-Higgs' try out wide handed Penrith a handy 24-14 half-time lead.
Illawarra started the second half with a bang when leading try scorer Lilly-Rose Bennett added to her season tally, with the scores remaining at 24-18 until three-quarter time.
While the Panthers scored first in the final quarter through Harrison again, the Steelers responded through Nyeasha Hoskins-Moore who fended off six defenders to score a sensational individual try under the posts.
The Panthers put the final nail in the coffin however when a cross-field kick found Ormsby, who crossed for her second try.
Bennett scored in the shadows of full-time but it was too little too late as the Panthers qualified for the inaugural Tarsha Gale Cup grand final.
Despite the loss, co-captain Mikayla Malaki saw plenty of positives.
"Our performance was awesome, we gave it our all," Malaki said.
"We started the season as strangers and now we are a family. I’m so proud of the girls, how they all performed and hopefully next year it will be our spot. We’ve bonded as a team, and it’s just going to get bigger and better from now on.
"I believe this is just the start. It's good for girls who want to play rugby league and hopefully it goes from strength to strength."
Coach Daniel Lacey couldn't doubt his girls' preparation.
"It wasn’t the result we were looking for. In this competition there is a clear cut top four or five teams, and anyone could win on their day," Lacey said.
"We prepared well and we thought we had a good game plan in limited time. Being a Nines format, you have to be ready to go and anything that gets thrown your way.
"It was a good battle, but Penrith came out on top."
Penrith Panthers 32 (Emily Perring 2, Cassie Ormsby 2, Christian Pio, Ashlee Harrison, Leone Tuivaiti-Higgs tries, Ashlee Harrison 2 goals) defeated Illawarra Steelers 28 (Keeley Davis 2, Lilly-Rose Bennett 2, Rikeya Horne, Nyeasha Hoskins-Moore tries, Keeley Davis, Nyeasha Hoskins-Moore goals) at Southern Cross Group Stadium. Half-time Panthers 24-14.