Cowboys v Sharks: Five key points
The Sharks again play giant-killers, the Cowboys struggle for offensive continuity without Thurston and Michael Ennis deserves more plaudits.
Spirits are high in the Shire
It was a trademark gritty win that only Cronulla can pull off. From an injury- and suspension-ravaged and disconsolate team just waiting for 2014 to end to a headstrong side whose playing group led the talk at half-time, Cronulla are back playing with genuine spirit. They have beaten premiership heavyweights the Roosters (twice) and reigning premiers Souths and now can add the high-flying Cowboys to that list. They were down by double digits more than once against the Knights last week and it could have been all too hard on Saturday night against the one of the league's best, but the fightback was led by the playing group.
"I was really pleased with the way they hung in there. They had a real sense of belief at half-time," coach Shane Flanagan said.
"We stuck to our plan, the players were driving that at half-time. We felt that we would be in it if we got good (field) position."
It shows the team has something special culturally when players take it upon themselves to give instruction in the sheds rather than letting the coach do all the talking.
Morgan desperately needs to work on kicking game
The rugby league world may have gotten a little carried away during Michael Morgan's pre-Origin form explosion. Five tries and five line breaks in two games leading up to State of Origin Game I had rugby league land falling hard for the irresistible exploits of North Queensland's wonder kid. There is no denying his destructive athletic abilities and his improving vision, but if he is to take the reins as the Cowboys' chief half post-Thurston his kicking game needs work. The primary kicker on Saturday night, Morgan put boot to ball six times in the match (five in the first half), with three directed straight down the throat of Cronulla's outside backs. Before he earns elite status, the Cowboys excitement machine first needs to broaden his skill set. Prior to Saturday he had kicked just 37 in 12 games and Saturday night showed why.
After the win coach Paul Green lamented his side's fifth-tackle options. "Generally speaking – and I'm not talking specifically about Morgo here – I thought our last plays were pretty ordinary tonight. It comes back to that inability to maintain or keep pressure on a team. That area in particular needs to be better," Green said.
That ability to apply pressure, build on it and make the right decision at the end of the game was severely lacking sans Thurston.
Michael Ennis's contributions sometimes go unnoticed
He is known so much for his niggling tactics that Sharks hooker Michael Ennis's production from dummy-half sometimes gets overlooked. As a tough guy in the middle who makes the effort plays, Ennis took a step into the limelight on Saturday, assisting on three of Cronulla's four tries. His combination of on-point passes and knowledge of how to work a defensive line were on show for all to see as he engineered multiple tries with beautiful short balls on time and on target.
His kicking game is also a weapon out of dummy half as he can surprise opposition outside backs with quick kicks that catch them out of position. His kicks out of dummy-half inherently improve the side's kick-chase relative to a first or second receiver kicking it as the offensive line is automatically behind Ennis, meaning they do not have to stop, prop and time their runs. Sharks coach Shane Flanagan was more than complimentary about Ennis's game and his place in the side.
"He's been great all year for us, he's played nearly every minute in every game," Flanagan said.
"He's a good communicator, he's a fierce competition, he gets under the opposition's skin there a couple of times but I'm glad to have him at our club."
The Cowboys' attitude needs to be questioned
By their own admission the Cowboys have not put in a full 80-minute performance all year and it is concerning for a side that has aspirations of a premiership. Be it digging a hole for themselves early or building a lead only to have it pegged back, the Cowboys seem like a team that are simply content with winning. Apart from a two-game stretch where they towelled up Penrith (30-10) and Souths (30-12), the most hurt they have been able to put on a side is an 11-point win against the Broncos where scores were all square with 10 minutes to go.
Facing the media after the game coach Paul Green brushed the talk of missing Thurston, saying: "It doesn't matter. He didn't play, it's not worth talking about." It did matter though because it says something about the team – that was all-but full strength – without Thurston. Yes the Cowboys can be a hungry footy side, as evidenced by their myriad comeback victories, but come September when the best sides play their full hand for the full 80 minutes, do they have the mental fortitude to do it?
In the debriefing prop James Tamou said Green was not overly animated over the monumental collapse. "He just told us the facts about the game in that we didn't complete that much, didn't complete down there with good ball," Tamou said. "And that's how we lost the game, we were just trying to play too hard when we were just trying to build pressure."
Jason Taumalolo the most important forward late in games
The Cowboys' 22-year-old wrecking ball never seems to run out of gas. Despite a longer-than-usual second stint on Saturday, Jason Taumalolo was the only Cowboys forward that looked like punching through when the game was on the line. As tough and reliable as Matt Scott and James Tamou are, there is that game-breaking quality about Taumalolo that cannot be seen by either Test prop or anyone else on the roster for that matter. It is no secret that the North Queensland forward running it most in the last 15 minutes of tight games is the barrel-chested runaway train New Zealander. With his combination of size, strength and footwork, Taumalolo is the Cowboys' best shot up the middle in crunch time.