Ask plenty of good judges for their premiership dark horses and they’ll tell you Cronulla.
It is a nomination that a week ago, following a sketchy performance against Manly, might not have been issued with much confidence. The form line was not convincing and entering Sunday’s blockbuster in Melbourne, a defeat would have left them only two points ahead of ninth-placed Wests Tigers and no certainty to even make the eight, let alone challenge for the top four and the title.
A different impression, though, has been left by a successful 17-14 raid on the rivals they conquered in the 2016 grand final. This was a victory to point them in the right direction to September, build on opportunism and completed with obstinance.
Cronulla showed a way to get around the wrestle with Melbourne with adventure and ad-lib footy. Then, when under siege as Smith, Slater and co turned it on, they defended for their lives.
Twice in the thrilling final 25 minutes at AAMI Park were Melbourne players stopped from scoring thanks to desperate tackles. First it was Curtis Scott, hauled into touch by Chad Townsend and Josh Dugan, then Joe Stimson, held up by Jesse Ramien and Valentine Holmes.