The North Queensland Toyota Cowboys have had their flawless 2015 New South Wales record spoiled by the Cronulla Sharks at Remondis Stadium tonight.
The home side triumphed 30-18 on the back of aggressive defence and a wall of first-half possession to consign the Cowboys to just their fifth loss of the season and their first away defeat outside of Brisbane.
It was only the team’s second defeat on the road in season 2015, the loss denying the Cowboys outright first on the competition ladder following the Broncos’ Friday night loss to Manly.
Both teams remain atop the National Rugby League table on 34 points with 15 wins and the two byes, but the minor premiership is still up for grabs and Brisbane have the front-running on for-and-against differential.
In front of a vocal Sharks home crowd in a bitterly cold twilight match, the Cowboys were on the back foot from the get-go as they conceded a penalty in the opening play of the game.
Penalties were to hurt the visitors throughout the course of the match – they conceded eight to the Sharks’ six, but a 5-3 count and half time gifted the home side good field position and overwhelming possession.
A scoreline of 14-0 at half time included converted tries to centre Ricky Leutele and five-eighth Jack Bird, while Michael Gordon kicked a penalty.
Needing a positive start to the second half, the Cowboys couldn’t have asked for worse as Gordon broke the line in the 43rd minute and showed a clean pair of heels to sprint away for a try that blew the score out to 18-0.
But with plenty of time on the clock and with the flow of possession – which was 65% to 35% in the Sharks’ favour in the first half – swing back towards them, the Cowboys launched their belated counter-offensive as winger Antonio Winterstein and his left-edge centre partner Kane Linnett crossed in consecutive minutes to reduce the margin to eight points, 18-10.
That was reduced to six points on the back of a Johnathan Thurston penalty and time was on NQ’s side to mount a full-scale comeback.
But the back of the visitors’ resolve was broken in the 58th minute as Leutele’s centre partner Gerard Beale latched on to a misdirected attacking kick and raced 90m to go up 24-12.
Cowboys winger Matt Wright grounded a smart kick in the 71st minute as the Cowboys were back in the contest, 24-18 down with nine minutes remaining.
The Sharks, though, continued to frustrate the Cowboys’ attempts at gaining field position and momentum and a Wade Graham four-pointer on the stroke of full-time sealed the contest.
The Sharks have inflicted the Cowboys’ past two defeats following a 24-18 win in Townsville in round 16.
The Cowboys will return to Townsville on Sunday before preparing for the Rabbitohs next Thursday on a short turnaround.
CRONULLA SHARKS 30 (Ricky Leutele, Jack Bird, Michael Gordon, Gerard Beale, Wade Graham tries; Gordon 4 goals; pen. goal) def NORTH QUEENSLAND TOYOTA COWBOYS 18 (Antonio Winterstein, Matthew Wright, Kane Linnett tries; Johnathan Thurston 2 goals, pen. goal) at Remondis Stadium.