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Mullen spurs Knights to crucial NRL win
Joe Barton
21:57 AEST Mon Aug 13 2012

With their NRL finals hopes on the line, Newcastle delivered on their pre-season promises with a clinical 26-4 victory over Cronulla at Hunter Stadium on Monday night.

Five-eighth Jarrod Mullen was the star of the show, opening the scoring in the 16th minute before laying on three more to move the Knights into ninth spot on the ladder, just two behind the eighth-placed Wests Tigers with three matches to play.

The loss all but puts paid to the top four hopes of Cronulla, who are in sixth on 27 points and three points behind fourth-placed Manly.

Newcastle fullback Darius Boyd was the mastermind behind the opening converted try.

He drifted cross field before putting halfback Tyrone Roberts through a gaping hole, with the young halfback sending Mullen under the posts.

The 25-year-old then turned creator, hitting the afterburners to get on the outside of Cronulla halfback Jeff Robson before running 35 metres and setting up centre Dane Gagai to extend the lead to 12-0 after 27 minutes.

Mullen got the second half underway perfectly for the home side when one of his cross-field kicks was snatched by Boyd who was eventually awarded a benefit-of-the-doubt try by video referee Rod Lawrence, delighting the crowd of 15,394.

Proving he wasn't quite done yet, Mullen again split the Sharks flimsy defence out wide to set up winger Akuila Uate in the 71st minute, while Kevin Naiqama crossed in the last minute of the match to complete the blowout.

The match took a spiteful twist mid-way through the second half when Cronulla second-rower sparked a minor scuffle after dropping an elbow into a the Knights' Roberts, lying prone on the ground.

The following set Knights prop Willie Mason was placed on report for hitting Jeff Robson late and high.

It prompted a brief show of spirit from the visitors, who immediately spread the ball wide and crossed through winger John Williams to reduce the margin to 18-4, but it was never going to be enough.

Cronulla bench forward Wade Graham, in his first match back from a sternum injury, left the field in the second half after aggravating the injury.

It is a concept which two months ago seemed completely farcical given Newcastle's standing on the ladder, but Wayne Bennett's remarkable streak of making the finals every year since 1992 could remain intact.

The master coach himself refused to be drawn on the likelihood of stealing seventh or eighth spot.

"You just want to be playing well at this end of the season and we're doing that," he said.

"The rest of it gives us the best chance we've got.

"I've been in that many situations at this time of year, I can tell you about every experience.

"But the experience I enjoy most is (having) your teams playing well at the right end of the season ... and right now we're playing good football.

"Whether it's good enough to get us there, I'm not sure.

"But I'm pleased to be in the position we're in."

Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan and captain Paul Gallen said Mullen's kicking game was the difference in the match, while Bennett and Knights' skipper Danny Buderus praised his running and passing game - highlighting the No.6's dominant all-round performance.

As for whether the Sharks can make the finals Flanagan said: "If we win another game we'll be in there.

"If we win a couple more, we'll be near that top four."