The North Queensland Toyota Cowboys’ season – and quest for back-to-back premierships – has been halted in emphatic fashion with a fired-up Cronulla Sharks downing them 32-20 in tonight’s NRL preliminary final.
Down 14-0 at the break, the Cowboys scored early in the second as a comeback threatened, but multiple penalties, relentless Sharks pressure and unforced errors conspired to thwart the North Queenslanders’ bid for glory in 2016.
A late rally proved too little, too late with the Cowboys ending their season with a third-round finals exit.
If the Cowboys were hoping to ease their way into the game, the Sharks had other plans, as opposition pressure and basic errors gave the Sharks a mountain of opportunity in the opening quarter of an hour.
At one stage the possession flow tipped 7% in the Sharks’ favour.
After trading opening sets, the Cowboys blinked first as Lachlan Coote grassed a difficult kick.
Justin O’Neill then dropped a pass moments later and the Cowboys were in a hole, with the Sharks even passing up a penalty chance in favour of larger reward.
Twice the Cronulla team crossed the line and twice they were denied by review officials – once a double movement and one a failed grounding attempt.
Add a Javid Bowen play-the-ball error in these early moments and the Cowboys were completing at 40%.
Somehow they hung on until the Sharks piloted over a penalty in the 16th minute with a 2-0 scoreline flattering to the North Queenslanders.
THE DAM WALL CRACKS EVENTUALLY
At the 20-minute mark though, that weight of possession and defence showed as the Sharks – on the back of another Cowboys handling error – scored out wide, Sosaia Feki reaching out for a classy finish.
James Maloney missed the extras but it was soon an 8-0 advantage as Kyle Feldt kicked a dropout out on the full, handing the Sharks a third penalty.
PROMISING SIGNS BUT LACKING POLISH
The Cowboys bravely climbed back into the match, wrestling back some field position and game control, but they were unable to land a killer blow.
The reprieve on the NQ defenders proved temporary as Sharks halfback Chad Townsend scooted over from what appeared to be a forward pass, and it was 14-0 in the shadows of half time.
The Sharks ran 753m to the Cowboys 357m in a lopsided half of footy in terms of game control.
It took just two minutes in the second 40 for the Cowboys to reply to that forgettable first half as Coote saluted after deftly grounding a kick from Johnathan Thurston that bobbled in and out of the grasp of a Cronulla player.
Thurston added the extras and the Cowboys were eight points adrift with 38 minutes remaining.
THE FIRST NAIL
Just as quickly as they gave away momentum, the Sharks snatched it back when, in the 52nd minute, veteran forward Luke Lewis crashed through tired defence on the back of repeat efforts.
Maloney converted and it was 20-6.
THE SECOND NAIL
Blink and you’d have missed the Sharks’ impressive follow-up as the wily Maloney somehow muscled through three would-be tacklers to score the Sharks' fourth moments later.
He converted again and it looked as if the Sharks would take a miracle to stop from here, with 20 minutes remaining.
The Cowboys tried valiantly to lift, but repeated penalties against them robbed them of any scintilla of hope.
Maloney slotted his third penalty, then scored a speculative intercept try as the Sharks reached their second ever top-level rugby league grand final.
Cowboys winger Kyle Feldt scored a pair of consolation tries – the second one a pearler – but the Sharks were not to be denied, despite letting in a third late try to youngster Coen Hess.
CRONULLA SHARKS 32 (James Maloney 2, Sosaia Feki, Chad Townsend, Luke Lewis tries; Maloney 3 goals; 3 pen. goals) def NORTH QUEENSLAND TOYOTA COWBOYS 20 (Kyle Feldt 2, Lachlan Coote, Coen Hess tries; Johnathan Thurston 2 goals) at Allianz Stadium.