Toby Rudolf’s barnstorming late try dramatically helped to seal an NRL Finals berth for Cronulla Sharks and ended New Zealand Warriors’ own chances in a Sunday thriller.

The Warriors had confounded the critics to challenge for a top-eight finish this season, and converted tries from Jack Murchie and Adam Pompey had seen them into a 14-12 lead with seven minutes remaining.

But with the clock ticking down, Rudolf barrelled through the Warriors defence to end their resistance, and Ronaldo Mulitalo’s score in the corner in the closing stages completed a 22-14 triumph.

Consequently, the eighth-placed Sharks – thrashed 38-10 by the Newcastle Knights last week – are six points clear of a trio of teams with only two regular-season matches remaining.

The Warriors had responded to tries from Sione Katoa and Mulitalo in the opening half-hour, with Chanel Harris-Tavita’s accurate boot aiding their cause, but Cronulla ultimately found a way at the Netstrata Jubilee Stadium.

Melbourne Storm all but booked a crucial top-two finish as Cameron Munster celebrated his 26th birthday with two tries in a 36-20 triumph over the North Queensland Cowboys.

Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Tino Faasuamaleaui, Josh Addo-Carr and Jahrome Hughes also scored in a six-try showing as the Storm made it 11 straight wins over the Cowboys.

The Storm would have to lose each of their remaining two regular-season games to miss out on the top-two slot that would allow them to play two finals at Suncorp Stadium.