Another whole-hearted effort wasn't enough to get the Vodafone Warriors home against defending premier Cronulla in tonight's 21st-round NRL match at Mount Smart Stadium.
They hung tough throughout a gruelling and often testy tussle but the Sharks stayed ahead all night to take it out 26-12 - although not without some controversy.
It took the Sharks just four minutes to open their account, former Vodafone Warrior Chad Townsend threading a kick through the line, the home side unable to clean up and centre Kurt Capewell alert to scoop up and score. Valentine Holmes made it 6-0.
On the 14-minute mark, Cronulla was over the line again but the dangerous Andrew Fifita lost control with some heat on him. No try and the Vodafone Warriors profited from it, heading downfield effectively to set up for a shot.
It looked like they'd manufactured the ideal reply when hooker Issac Luke went over in the 21st minute. Referee Matt Cecchin had 'try' on it as he sent it to the bunker. The camera angles weren't helpful, though, and the 'no try' graphic brought groans from the Mount Smart Stadium faithful.
When the Vodafone Warriors were in good ball territory again they suffered through another error but they weren't to be denied a third time when centre Solomone Kata intercepted 60 metres out to race away for his fourth try of the year (despite the distraction of a Cronulla trainer on the field in front of him). Luke's conversion from wide out was superb to lock the scores up at 6-6 after 31 minutes.
Having fought their way back into the contest through some patience, the Vodafone Warriors undid the good work from the restart through over eagerness. They turned the ball over on the 40-metre mark, standoff Fa'amanu Brown sweeping it up and going over in Blake Ayshford's tackle for a try Holmes again converted for a 12-6 lead after 33 minutes.
There it stayed until the break but the Vodafone Warriors might have been better-placed; they were guilty of errors in possession when they were in a position to apply some pressure.
The second half began indifferently when possession was again handed over. When a penalty followed in the repeat set, the Sharks went for two to stretch their lead to 14-6 after 44 minutes.
Now the Vodafone Warriors warmed to their work.
A Mason Lino grubber forced a goal-line drop out. From the repeat set Bodene Thompson rolled a kick in-goal, the Sharks batted it out and it was goal-line dropout time again.
This time Cronulla couldn't turn the Vodafone Warriors away, lovely ballwork to the right from Kieran Foran and Lino putting Thompson over for his sixth try of the season and Luke bringing the score-line back to 12-14 after 51 minutes. Sadly Thompson was forced off with a shoulder injury soon after.
Just about every contest involving Cronulla is trench warfare. This one was no different.
Both sides rolled up their sleeves and took it to each other set for set.
The Vodafone Warriors cut down their error rate and contiuned to defend well (they had missed just 14 tackles after 60 minutes). They seemed to be sensing a shift in fortune but a long stoppage in play for an injury to Brown worked against them.
The Cronulla pivot went low on Sam Lisone, the contact sickening as he got his head in the wrong position. With Brown stretchered off and replays pored over, Lisone was put on report and Cronulla had the penalty to go on attack.
It was the match turner.
The Sharks forced a goal-line dropout and came back at the Vodafone Warriors with a slick try through their left edge, sweet hands putting wing Sosaia Feki over in the corner. The gifted Holmes struck the conversion brilliantly to give Cronulla a 20-12 lead into the last 15 minutes of the encounter.
Ultimately the Vodafone Warriors were put out of the picture by another dubious call in the 71st minute.
Jayson Bukuya appeared to be tackled short of the line by the letter of the law, Ayshford and David Fusitu'a both with a hand on him when his ball-carrying arm hit the ground.
Bukuya got up, ran on and put the ball down. Cecchin had it as a try and the bunker concurred - despite the apparent evidence - to allow the Sharks to push out to an unassailable 26-12 lead.
The battle had swung on two debatable calls.
Mount Smart Stadium, Auckland
Vodafone Warriors 12 (Solomone Kata, Bodene Thompson tries; Issac Luke 2 conversions).
Cronulla Sharks 26 (Kurt Capewell, Fa'amanu Brown, Sosaia Feki, Jayson Bukuya tries; Valentine Holmes 4 conversions, penalty).
Halftime: 12-6 Sharks.
Referees: Matt Cecchin and Gavin Reynolds.
Vodafone Warriors | Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (c); David Fusitu'a, Blake Ayshford, Solomone Kata, Ken Maumalo; Kieran Foran, Mason Lino; Jacob Lillyman, Issac Luke, Sam Lisone; Bodene Thompson, Bunty Afoa; Simon Mannering. Interchange: Ben Matulino, Mafoa'aeata Hingano, Ligi Sao, James Bell.