Sharks surge home to end Cowboys streak
Trust the Cronulla Sharks to pull off the miraculous.
Down 18-0 less than half an hour into the contest the Sharks rallied with 24-straight second-half points, stunning an incredulous 18,826 North Queenslanders on Saturday night.
The Fifita brothers and veteran hardman Wade Graham were superb for the visitors in the second-half romp, but a certain hooker donning headgear was a class above everyone on the field.
With three try assists from four Cronulla tries, 39 tackles and unmeasurable footy smarts, Michael Ennis steered the ship for Cronulla, picking out the right option time after time on the goal line.
"He's been great all year for us, he's played nearly every minute in every game... he's been great there for us," Sharks coach Shane Flanagan said after the game.
"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."
Old habits die hard and North Queensland, without the calm head of co-captain Johnathan Thurston, pushed their luck one time too many.
Minus the world's best player and North Queensland's lifeblood, the Cowboys put in their sharpest first 20 minutes all season, exposing an inexcusably lackadaisical Sharks outfit in front of 18,826 on Saturday night.
In a game the scrappy Sharks should have relished, the first five minutes featured errors to Ricky Leutele and Wade Graham along with a penalty against Andrew Fifita – all in the ruck.
The distinct lack of focus was countered with impeccable skill and energy by a Cowboys side that seemingly didn't miss a beat without Thurston.
The Cowboys shot out to an 18-point lead in less than half an hour, kick-started by some backfield brilliance from hooker Jake Granville.
Off a quick play-the-ball from Gavin Cooper, the zippy No.9 darted left, burning both markers before stepping a lazy Jack Bird and marching 60 metres to score.
The Cowboys received a scare in the 15th minute with prop Matt Scott the victim of a Matt Prior crusher tackle. Prior was put on report on the play with Scott leaving the field, but he would return.
The Cowboys were in no terrible rush for the next try, jogging through a right-side shift and working it through hands to Michael Morgan who busted the line to find centre Justin O'Neill who improved the angle.
The Sharks' energy stocks were reading zero and the onslaught continued with Winterstein touching down off more slick movement.
"They had a real sense of belief at half time," Flanagan said.
"Three poor defensive reads, but we stuck to our plan and the players were driving that at half-time. They felt that we would be in it at the end if we got some position."
But true to both North Queensland and Cronulla form, the Cowboys let things slip while Cronulla started gearing up.
Both sides instantly showed their intent out of the sheds with a soft try to Luke Lewis, who was hit on the chest out of first receiver off a crafty play by Ennis who held the ball up just long enough to engage Cooper.
Granville was cited minutes later for a crusher on Sosaia Feki, who left the field.
Soon after the Sharks were in on another one-pass-off-the-ruck try with Ennis finding Sam Tagataese on the left with a beautiful flat ball.
The only second-half Cowboys highlight came in the 54th when flyer O'Neill almost went the distance off some nice movement, but the Cowboys gave up the lead when Andrew Fifita crashed over one off the ruck and again off an Ennis ball.
The comeback was complete just minutes later when Ricky Leutele fell on a Jeff Robson kick which was fumbled by Coote in the in-goal.
Cronulla Sharks 24 (Luke Lewis, Sam Tagataese, Andrew Fifita tries, Ricky Leutele tries; Michael Gordon 4 goals) def North Queensland Cowboys 18 (Jake Granville, Justin O'Neill, Antonio Winterstein tries; Ethan Lowe 3 goals) at 1300SMILES Stadium. Crowd: 18,826. Half-time: Cowboys 18-0. On report: Matt Prior (15th minute), Jake Granville (46th minute), Michael Ennis (69th minute).