North Queensland have come back from the dead to steal an extra-time thriller with 15-14 over the Sharks at Allianz Stadium, ending Cronulla's hopes of being the first team in more than 20 years to win back-to-back titles.
The Cowboys had looked all at sea against a grinding Sharks team, falling behind 8-0 and 14-6, but a powerful try to Jason Taumalolo and extra-time field goal to Michael Morgan helped Paul Green's men steal an unlikely win to bundle Cronulla out of the finals race and book a semi-final meeting with the Eels next weekend.
A stripping penalty at Cronulla's line allowed the Cowboys to even the score just two minutes before the end of the regular period and set up the nail-biting extra-time finish. Morgan's drop goal seconds before the end of the first half of extra time proved to be the only scoring chance of the 10 minutes in which the disciplined Cowboys desperately hung onto their one-point lead for five frantic minutes to eke out a win.
Taumalolo was simply immense with 256 metres, 37 tackles and a critical second-half try in which he backed through four defenders to somehow plant the ball.
For the Sharks, they profited from the returns of Jack Bird and Wade Graham with both players important in attack and stinging in defence while lock Paul Gallen (54 tackles and 189 metres) was also massive.
Both teams had been resolute in defence and fairly unimaginative in attack through the opening 40 minutes with the only first-half try coming just three minutes into the half in unusual circumstances.
Cowboys winger Antonio Winterstein failed to get low on a kick return near his try line and was pushed back in goal, losing control of the ball as he tried to plant it in the field of play with Townsend grounding it for an easy four-pointer.
Maloney's 18th-minute penalty goal was a compliment to North Queensland's resilient defence after Cronulla failed to make use of several attacking chances.
The Cowboys were largely their own worst enemies with the several attacking sets they received as the half looked like petering out with the 8-0 score-line until some late drama.
A repeat set earned after Jayden Brailey charged down a kick into touch handed the Cowboys an attacking set, which was refreshed by a penalty when Valentine Holmes interfered with Michael Morgan at marker resulting in Maloney's possible line-break being called back.
And when Maloney tackled Ethan Lowe off the ball from an attacking kick later in that set the officials had no choice but to send him to the sin-bin. Lowe's penalty made it 8-2 at the break with Cronulla needing to defend 10 minutes with 12 men when the second half started.
The Cowboys got off to a poor start in the second term with Winterstein's horror afternoon continuing, producing a drop to start the Cowboys' first attacking set, but North Queensland eventually mounted enough pressure for Kyle Feldt to cash in on an overlap to get it back to 8-6.
The try seemed to lift the Cowboys who produced a monster defensive set shortly after Maloney's return to the field only for a questionable stripping penalty awarded to the Sharks to boost Cronulla upfield from where a perfect Townsend grubber allowed Jack Bird to extend their lead.
Again the Cowboys hit back when Taumalolo showed monumental strength to back into the try-line and somehow muscle the ball down and again reduce the deficit to two points at 14-12 with 15 minutes to play.
With the clock ticking down and a few chances for both teams going begging, a stripping penalty at Cronulla's line gave Lowe a simple two points.
Some late drama saw Jake Granville charge down a Maloney field goal attempt and Gallen go within centimetres of scoring seconds before full-time but instead it was the Cowboys and Morgan in the extra period that iced the win.
The Cowboys will face the Parramatta Eels at ANZ Stadium at 7.40pm next Saturday while the Brisbane Broncos will host the Penrith Panthers at Suncorp Stadium at 7.55pm on Friday night.
North Queensland Toyota Cowboys 15 (Feldt, Taumalolo tries; Lowe 3 goals; Morgan field goal) defeated Cronulla Sharks 14 (Townsend, Bird tries; Maloney 3 goals) at Allianz Stadium.
First published on NRL.com.