Cronulla lost a rare opportunity to host a home final when they were beaten 36-22 by the Cowboys in Round 26 last year.
Needing victory to finish above Canberra, who beat the Warriors earlier in the day, the Sharks were right in the game when Paul Gallen crashed over shortly after half-time to trail 18-16 but couldn’t go on with the job as North Queensland continued their good run of form heading into the finals.
Honours were shared early on, Cowboys back-rower Gavin Cooper scoring from a Matt Bowen bomb before Colin Best evened the ledger when he raced across to score in his last game at Toyota Stadium.
Brent Tate restored his side’s lead with a clever try on the right edge but Isaac De Gois cancelled that one out too when he darted over from dummy-half to make it 12-all.
It would be the Cowboys enjoying a half-time lead, however, as Ashley Graham crossed for his 20th try of the season – Johnathan Thurston’s pinpoint conversion making it 18-12 at the break.
Gallen gave the home fans hope when the two sides returned before the Cowboys put the foot down with James Segeyaro, Jason Taumalolo and Graham scoring in quick-fire succession to take the game away from Cronulla. Taumalolo’s effort was particularly impressive as he beat four defenders on a 30-metre run to the try line.
Andrew Fifita grabbed a consolation try nine minute from full-time but it was never going to be enough to help his side claim victory.
The Cowboys enjoyed a whopping 58 per cent of possession, running the ball 166 times to Cronulla’s 127 and making 1553 metres to 1210.