The Illawarra Cutters have booked a one-way ticket to the Preliminary Finals, with a convincing 32-22 victory over the Wests Tigers.
Their victory came off the back of the leader of their forward pack, Shannon Wakeman, who not for the first time this year, achieved and exceeded his expectations in the front-row, and performed some match-winning plays at the back end of the match.
The Cutters were steered around beautifully by the ever-reliable Drew Hutchinson, and also Shaun Nona who was seriously on-song with his passing game.
The inclusion of Sam Coster and Saliva Havili was always going to be beneficial for the Cutters, while the Tigers would be without Watson Heleta who was replaced by Luke Sharpe. Esan Marsters also came into the second row for the visitors in place of Curtis Sironen.
While wet weather had been forecast across Sydney, it didn't eventuate and the dry conditions allowed for the fast running game expected of a Qualifying Final. With the breeze affecting both sides, it was the Cutters who looked like blowing their opposition off the park in the early stages.
An early Jacob Liddle error gave the Cutters an early attacking chance and Sam Clune almost sent Mitch Porter over, but another fumble let the Tigers off. Illawarra's forward pack were dominating early, however, and Drew Hutchison showed some fancy footwork to score minutes later.
In the 13th minute it was time for the other Illawarra half to shine; Shaun Nona cut out two defenders with a beautiful pass to send Kalifa FaiFai Loa over for the home side's second. The breeze sent Nona's conversion attempt wide, but the Cutters led 10-0.
Clune and Levi Dodd were opening the Tigers defence up on both sides of the field, but it was their left edge that would bring the next points. A slick movement from Nona and Adam Quinlan resulted in Faifai Loa bagging his second, once again unconverted for a 14-0 lead.
With 10 minutes remaining in the first half the Tigers eventually found the line with what initially appeared to be a knock-on. A break from Liddle produced an opportunity, offloaded to Wesley Lolo who put it on to Matthew Eisenhuth. The Tigers lock juggled it several times and looked to have spilled it - but a replay confirmed he grounded it for the visitors' first try.
Momentum had shifted and the Tigers were pressing for a second, with strong chances produced by Taylor and Hunt. Jayden Wheelhouse spilled it over the sideline moments later, however, letting the Cutters off once again.
In the shadows of half-time the Tigers broke through once again, however, thanks to a perfectly-placed grubber from Hunt. Jackson Williams managed to plant the ball down millimetres inside the dead ball line and with the conversion, reduced the deficit to just two at the break.
The Cutters started the second half as they began the first, with the service of Shaun Nona prevailing yet again this season. He threw a magic ball for Chris Lewis, who bagged a well-deserved try to go with his double last week.
It was end-to-end, exciting football for the next 20-minute period, without a try being scored. Shannon Wakeman ended the dead-lock with a bustling charge off a Siliva Havili pass, powering through the Wests Tigers defence and planting the ball down with force.
Wakeman continued his year-long form by making another linebreak off the ensuing set, and the defenders never recovered as Nona shifted the ball left, it found its way to Levi Dodd who completed the try.
Charlie Taylor had his thinking cap on when he stripped the ball off Mitch Porter, and Manaia Cherrington darted over from dummy-half the very next play to score a consolation try, before JJ Felise made the scoreline respectable with a barge-over try in the final minute.
The win means the Cutters will have a week off, and are now just one win away from a Grand Final appearance.
The Wests Tigers will play next week, but their ability to get back into the game at the end of each half will give them confidence going into next week's game.