A dour, scoreless first half was the least of the Cowboys’ worries in their match against Cronulla. Entering the clash in sixth position after a strong run of form since a poor opening five rounds, injuries to two of their most important players was something they simply couldn’t afford if they were to consolidate their top eight position and launch a run for a home semi-final. Eventually they overcame the Sharks... but the cost of the victory looks huge.
The Game Swung When... Some Johnathan Thurston magic put the Sharks’ challenge to bed. In the 43rd minute in a left-to-right shift ‘JT’ launched a massive cut-out pass that found John Williams in space. And ‘Wolfman’s’ brother raced to the tryline to crash over in the corner and open the scoring. Just 10 minutes later a clever short grubber kick found the Sharks’ defence in trouble and the lead extended to six points through an accidental offside. Those six points would’ve been enough in the end, but the Cowboys emphasised the win with some strong attacking players later in the second half to stretch the final margin to 20.
Who Was Hot... Australian halfback Thurston continues to increase his standing in the game as the sport’s number one player. He recorded two try assists, kicked for 152 metres and scored eight points – but it was his ability to lead his depleted team to victory that was the major plus for the Cowboys. Even Cronulla coach Ricky Stuart believed he was the best on ground, saying if he was playing for the Sharks his team “would’ve won by 40”.
Who Was Not... Outside back Matthew Wright was very frustrated at times in this clash. Midway through the second half he was sent into open space after a great cut-out pass from stand-in playmaker Blake Green gifted him a wide channel to run through... but with the game in the balance he lifted his head before catching the ball and it was dropped to the ground. While he scored a try in the corner late in the match (ruled ‘benefit of the doubt’), he also missed three tackles. More would be expected of the Sharks’ star signing from Penrith.
Had To Be Seen To Be Believed... Matt Bowen’s first try was a move practised to perfection. In a show of absolute precision, the Cowboys attacked the Sharks’ defence. With a number of players in motion, acting hooker Anthony Watts sent the ball left to five-eighth Grant Rovelli, who shifted the football to Scott Bolton running an angle to the corner. But just as defenders looked set to swoop on the back-rower, off his right shoulder Bowen emerged out of a huddle of players to wrong foot the final line of defence and score the points that put any hope of a Cronulla victory to rest.
Refs Watch... In a tense first half referees Ben Cummins and Brett Suttor had a lot to deal with. The Cowboys faced a 4-0 penalty count midway through the first half and captain Thurston was far from impressed. As was forward Carl Webb, who was warned for poor treatment of the refs during the first half. The final penalties finished at 8-5 in favour of the visitors – and with the victory at least the Cowboys had nothing to whinge about.
Injuries... Unfortunately for Cowboys fans there’s no good news here. Aaron Payne was taken from the field early in the first half after being wrong-footed in defence, injury his arm. He played no further part in the match, neither did representative forward Luke O’Donnell, who injured a leg in the 20th minute in a battle for possession. Early reports are the injury is a grade one-two medial ligament tear but he could be out for the season. Terrible news for the Cowboys and NSW Blues. John Williams also finished the match worse for wear, limping up the tunnel after receiving a knock to his left leg in scoring his try. For the Sharks an ugly head clash between hooker Terence Seu Seu and back-rower Grant Millington didn’t prevent them from returning to the action.
NRL.com Best & Fairest...
3 points – Johnathan Thurston (Cowboys): Brilliant again, even without the influence of several of his biggest-name team-mates; 2 points – Matt Bowen (Cowboys): An electric performance in his comeback match; 1 point – Luke Douglas (Sharks): Did his Origin chances no harm with another strong effort, running for a game-high 185 metres.
Cowboys 24 (M Bowen 2, J Williams, T Williams tries; J Thurston 4 goals) def Sharks 4 (M Wright try) at Dairy Farmers Stadium. Crowd: 17,283.