Holmes on Slater level, says Pay
VALENTINE Holmes will enter the finals as arguably the hottest player in the NRL after spearheading Cronulla to a 30-18 win over Canterbury in their NRL season finale.
Holmes scored a try and set up three others on Sunday afternoon in a performance that even had Bulldogs coach Dean Pay comparing him to retiring champion Billy Slater.
"Billy's retiring and someone's got to take that mantle. These sort of players, for what he has done, he's up there with the top players in the competition," Pay said after the match.
Sharks coach Shane Flanagan stopped short of crowning Holmes the game's form player but admitted needing his star fullback to continue his purple patch in the finals.
"He's definitely in form in our team. Not quite sure about the whole competition, there's some good players going around at the moment," Flanagan said.
"(But) we need him in form. You need players like that if you're going to go along in the semi-finals to rely on to score those tries, make a break, do something special." Holmes' performances - he also had two line break assists and ran for more than 100m - has coincided with the Sharks ending the regular season with a four-game winning streak.
No other finals contenders have more confidence than the 2016 champions, who will face minor premiers the Sydney Roosters in next week's qualifying final. The Bulldogs showed plenty of bite to stay within striking distance for most of the contest at ANZ Stadium, led by Will Hopoate's 218m, 12 tackle busts and try.
But Holmes had an answer for every Bulldogs attack.
The Queensland State of Origin representative set up the opener for Luke Capewell, and replied to back-to-back Bulldogs tries by sending Sosaia Feki over just before halftime.
Holmes did it himself moments after the break to score his 21st try of the season - a career-high - and pull within one of the league's top tryscorer David Fusitu'a.
And when the Bulldogs threatened again by pulling within six, this time through Brett Morris' 53rd-minute posting, it was none other than Holmes to keep the hosts at bay.
On play one off a scrum, the 23-year-old put Feki on the outside of his man and ensure the Sharks finished the season in fourth spot.
It initially looked as though the Bulldogs were in for a long day when Capewell, Andrew Fifita and Josh Dugan crossed during the opening 22 minutes. Fifita crashed over despite appearing to be advantaged by a hole created by Luke Lewis running into Lachlan Lewis.
The Bulldogs showed plenty of ticker to respond with the next two tries to Will Hopoate and Michael Lichaa but, led by Holmes, the Sharks held firm at every turn.
The defeat means the Bulldogs finish 12th in their first season under rookie coach Dean Pay - one spot below their 11th-placed ending under Des Hasler last year.