Sharks out-grind lacklustre Cowboys
One of the competition's dark horses have done it again with a determined Cronulla outfit holding off a second-half Cowboys comeback to move within a few differential points of the fourth-placed Rabbitohs with a 30-18 win.
A stunning last-minute try to Wade Graham sealed the deal after the Cowboys twice threatened comebacks in the second half after being dominated in the first 40 minutes.
The Sharks dominated possession in the first half to take a 14-0 lead at the break and despite extending that early in the second stanza had to withstand the now-obligatory second-half Cowboys comeback.
The North Queenslanders got back to 18-12 as key playmakers Lachlan Coote and Johnathan Thurston shook off below-par first halves to briefly spark a comeback but a length-of-the-field try to Gerard Beale marking an attacking Thurston kick looked to have shut the visitors out of the game.
But a 73rd-minute try to Matt Wright from a Thurston kick – followed by a precision sideline conversion – kept Sharks fans on the edge of their seats at 24-18 with seven minutes to play.
The Cowboys weren't able to deliver the killer blow that would take the match to golden point and with winger Valentine Holmes setting for a field goal 90 seconds from full-time the Sharks were able to regain the ball off the Cowboys for a repeat set, creating the platform for Graham to dive over for the match-sealing try.
A determined first 40 from Cronulla helped them to a 14-0 half-time lead against a Cowboys outfit lacking in execution in the face of a disciplined Sharks side that grabbed 65 per cent of possession in the opening 40, with the visitors being forced to make 80 more tackles than their opponents.
Dally M favourite Thurston was kept reasonably quiet aside from a few nice touches, while fullback Lachlan Coote had an underwhelming half in both attack and defence.
Things got off on the wrong foot for the visitors when they gifted Cronulla a penalty for a hand on the ball from the very first tackle of the game, while their own first attacking opportunity came unstuck when a poor Coote grubber was trapped by the Sharks.
It proved the pattern of the half and the Sharks were first to post points in the 11th minute when back-to-back penalties handed them a free shot at two points, which they duly took.
The Cowboys opted against a free two points to level up shortly after but again weren't able to trouble the Sharks' line despite a full set in attacking territory.
The Sharks made them pay for fumbling a kick in the 21st minute when a well-worked left side move from Jeff Robson and Michael Gordon allowed Ricky Leutele to slice through.
The home side showed they were well and truly up for the contest with a powerful defensive set on the half hour mark that forced the Cowboys to take a last-tackle kick from inside their own 20, and the field position told immediately when Jack Bird stepped past Thurston to score later in the next set.
The Sharks exploded out of the blocks in the second half when Gordon scooped up a Thurston grubber and burst through Thurston and Ethan Lowe to run 95 metres and extend the lead to 18-0.
From that point Thurston and Coote found their mojo; Coote grubbered for Antonio Winterstein to score then marked a Thurston bomb and passed back for Kane Linnett to get his side's second.
A penalty goal closed the gap to six before Beale pushed the Sharks back out to 12.
With the match becoming incredibly tense a precision Thurston grubber allowed Wright to score and his clutch conversion again closed the gap to six before the tense final stanza resulted in Graham's match-clinching four-pointer and a 30-18 win that keeps the Cowboys in second on the ladder behind Brisbane on for-and-against.
The Sharks move to 28 points, level with the fourth-placed Rabbitohs, with a finals berth all but guaranteed and a top-four finish a realistic goal.
Cronulla Sharks 30 (Leutele, Bird, Gordon, Beale, Graham tries; Gordon 5 goals) defeated North Queensland Cowboys 18 (Winterstein, Linnett, Wright tries; Thurston 3 goals) at Remondis Stadium. Half time: Cronulla 14-0. Crowd 13,878.