The North Queensland Toyota Cowboys have triumphed in a pulsating opening-round National Rugby League clash against the Cronulla Sharks, with Ethan Lowe’s late try clinching a 20-14 win at 1300SMILES Stadium.
With scores locked at 14-all and the Cowboys primed for a field goal, Lowe simply put his head down and ran hard at tiring defenders for the match-winning try as the home side scraped through a hotly-contested match.
The win complemented the Cowboys' World Club Challenge victory a fortnight ago and sets the 2015 champions up for their first road trip to Parramatta next weekend.
With the expected heavy rain today not eventuating, the playing surface was in good condition despite steady showers over the preceding two days. As a result conditions were dry, if not humid, and any thought of a muddy slogfest was put to bed by kick-off.
Running towards the northern grandstand end, the Sharks had the better field position in the opening exchanges, helped in no small part by the concession of three Cowboys penalties in the opening 10 minutes.
Despite coughing up plenty of possession through ill-discipline, there was nothing shoddy about the Cowboys’ goal-line defence, the home side repelling wave after wave of Sharks attack, whose astute kicking game forced two dropouts in quick succession.
But some poor Sharks’ ball control and a midfield penalty soon had North Queensland down the right end of the field, with hulking lock Jason Taumalolo crashing over in the 14th minute, but in the first use of the referral bunker, the ref’s on-field decision to award a try was overturned.
The Cowboys persisted though and three minutes later, centre Justin O’Neill – fresh from scoring a double in the World Club Challenge – crossed for the club’s first four-pointer of the 2016 NRL Telstra Premiership.
It was a marvellous team effort, starting with Johnathan Thurston, who opted to run instead of kick on the last tackle.
Thurston found halves partner Michael Morgan, who shifted the ball to Lowe to put in an enterprising grubber kick behind the Sharks defence, to which O’Neill won the race for his 48th career try and 14th in Cowboys colours.
Thurston added the extras and it took just four more minutes for the Cowboys to double the Sharks’ pain as O’Neill’s centre partner Kane Linnett crossed out wide.
Thurston nailed the conversion for a 12-0 lead but the home side, in front of 15,519 members and fans, continued to press and winger Kyle Feldt crossed out wide, only for the sideline official to rule the final pass from Morgan forward.
Cronulla, though, would get on the scoreboard two minutes from half time as halfback Chad Townsend swooped on a Lachlan Coote mistake to slide over, with halves partner James Maloney piloting the kick over for a 12-6 scoreline at the break.
An early penalty in the second half from the Sharks’ Michael Ennis resulted in Thurston taking a shot for goal, and extending the Cowboys’ lead to 8 in the 44th minute.
The Sharks responded a few minutes later as Jack bird crashed over after running on to a sharp inside ball from Ben Barber, making the score 14-12 after the conversion attempt sailed through the uprights.
With the Sharks starting to again win the battle for territory, forward leader Luke Lewis left the field with an injury, followed minutes later by Cowboys winger Antonio Winterstein who copped a heavy head knock.
With troops thinning, both sides slowed things down but discipline continued to cost the Cowboys, and a penalty with 20 minutes remaining had the scores level at 14-all.
An exciting showdown loomed as the home side fought desperately to get their premiership defence off to a positive start.
A missed Sharks drop-goal attempt 13 minutes from full time had the crowd breathe a sigh of relief as both sides were quickly running out of gas in the season-opener.
But Lowe’s 74th-minute try proved the match-winner as the Cowboys stole a late march on the Sharks to triumph in Round 1.
The Sharks had one last roll of the dice, but Lachlan Coote showed tremendous courage to effect a strong tackle on prop Andrew Fifita at the death with the big forward pressing hard. Fifita would then knock the ball on for the final play of the game.
NORTH QUEENSLAND TOYOTA COWBOYS 20 (Justin O’Neill, Kane Linnett, Ethan Lowe tries; Johnathan Thurston 3 goals, pen. goal) def CRONULLA SHARKS 14 (Chad Townsend, Jack Bird tries; James Maloney 2 goals, pen. goal) at 1300SMILES Stadium. Crowd: 15,519.