Cronulla skipper Paul Gallen accused Canberra’s Josh Papalii of a ‘‘dog shot’’ in an explosive aftermath to the Raiders' 34-16 win at Canberra Stadium.
But the Raiders privately feel their battle was instigated by Gallen headbutting Papalii in the first set of the game.
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Canberra will play South Sydney in a sudden-death semi-final after scoring four late tries to bury a determined Cronulla 34-16 in today's NRL elimination final.
Canberra is also fuming at a tackle by Jeremy Smith on Josh Dugan, believing the Sharks lock attacked the injured ankle which forced the Raiders star fullback to miss last week’s Warriors win.
Papalii embarked on a solo mission to unsettle Gallen and duly did so by pulling off a host of savage hits.
Gallen warned referee Tony Archer he’d take matters into his own hands after a Papalii high shot floored him late in the first half.
Clearly unsettled by the 20-year-old’s aggression, the New South Wales captain made a couple of uncharacteristic second-half errors as the Raiders marched into the second week of the finals.
Canberra’s sixth straight win booked it a semi-final against Souths in Sydney this Saturday, with the winner to play the Bulldogs in a preliminary final.
Asked about their fiery exchanges, Gallen replied: ‘‘I don’t really care about Papalii, he hit a dog shot with a swinging arm, and once in the back without the ball.
‘‘He was coming from the blindside a lot. He got me high and from the back, he did well the boy.’’
Like two bulls butting heads in the back paddock, it was the young buck who won this exchange.
Quietly spoken off the field, Papalii’s battle with Gallen inspired his teammates in front of a raucous 24,450-strong crowd.
The pair may meet again in next month’s Australia-New Zealand Test in October should Papalii win his first Kiwi jumper.
‘‘Furnsey [Raiders coach David Furner] just told me to look after Gallen there, it was a big task and I still can’t believe I finished it off,’’ Papalii said.
‘‘He’s real experienced and a real scary guy, too. He got me a few times, but it’s just a game I guess.’’
Papalii insisted there was no malice in his first-half tackle which had Gallen seeing red.
‘‘I really didn’t mean that, my hand just slipped up,’’ said Papalii, who also scored a try.
‘‘I was going for the chest, but it just slipped up at the last minute.
‘‘He [Gallen] just told me he was going to get me back, and I knew I had to be ready for it.’’
Raiders skipper David Shillington confirmed David Furner had instructed Papalii to make Gallen public enemy No.1.
‘‘Furnsey gave him a few words of encouragement to get over him [Gallen] early in the game and I thought Papa really stood up there, it was good,’’ Shillington said.
‘‘He got up him a few times and Gal didn’t handle it very well.’’
Furner added: ‘‘Gal’s a tremendous player and I thought if ‘Papa’ could get in his face a little bit it could give us an edge there.’’
Former Raiders golden child Todd Carney endured an unhappy return to the capital, hobbling off early in the second half with a recurrence of an Achilles injury.
Furner said he picked up on Carney’s injury issues, with scans likely to confirm the need for off-season surgery, and they ran plenty of traffic his way.
‘‘I did have a look at their warm-up and noticed that in their left edge and right edge that Toddy wasn’t in it there,’’ Furner said.
‘‘I did see that, how long he was going to last I wasn’t sure.’’
Even with their captain battered and their star playmaker off the field, the Sharks were unlucky not to be in the lead when just shortly after Wade Graham scored in the 49th minute, Jeff Robson was denied a try due to an obstruction.
‘‘First look at it I thought he [Jeremy Smith] was two defenders in and didn’t have too much contact with the player,’’ Sharks coach Shane Flanagan said.
Still, the Sharks only trailed 18-16 with a quarter of the game to go - though there was more than a hint of a forward pass in the lead-up to Nathan Stapleton’s try on 60 minutes.
Up stepped Blake Ferguson, the former Shark who famously said on leaving Cronulla he was going because he wanted to win a premiership.
He reeled in a Sam Williams bomb for his first try in the 67th minute before grabbing another in between four-pointers to Glen Buttriss and Williams.
Penrith mid-season recruit Sandor Earl scored two first-half tries to wrest back momentum for the Raiders after Cronulla took an early 6-0 lead through a try to Ricky Leutele.
CANBERRA RAIDERS 34 (S Earl 2 B Ferguson 2 G Buttriss J Papalii S Williams tries J Croker 3 goals) bt CRONULLA SHARKS 16 (W Graham R Leutele N Stapleton tries T Carney N Stapleton goals) at Canberra Stadium. Referees: Tony Archer, Chris James. Crowd: 24,450.