Clinical Cowboys hold off Sharks
They say to never change a winning formula, and that has paid dividends for North Queensland in their 2016 season opener as they defeated Cronulla 20-14 at 1300SMILES Stadium.
Winners by six points or less eight times in 2015, it seemed each week produced a different hero for the eventual premiers and this time it was second-rower Ethan Lowe, twisting his way through Sharks fullback Ben Barba to score the winner five minutes out from time after both sides were locked at 14-apiece.
Blockbusting lock forward Jason Taumalolo was fantastic in laying a platform for Clive Churchill Medallist Johnathan Thurston, while the never-say-die Sharks got some good go-forward from Andrew Fifita in the middle and Jack Bird on the flank.
The extreme weather that had threatened to plague the season opener was nowhere to be seen and the remarkably dry track favoured the Cowboys, who jumped the visitors 12-0 early on.
But in typical Cronulla fashion, the visitors gritted their teeth and chipped away at the Cowboys' double-figure lead to draw level with 20 minutes to play before Lowe produced the game winner.
Kyle Feldt got their premiership campaign underway with a towering bomb reminiscent of the 2015 grand final extra-time restart that is now etched into rugby league history, but on this occasion Barba had no trouble under the high ball.
The Cowboys began with a notable defensive intensity, but a couple of overzealous moments cost them points until Justin O'Neill beat Sosaia Feki to latch on to Lowe's grubber.
Hard-running centre Kane Linnett was over five minutes later when Thurston expertly picked him out, while at the other end Luke Lewis dropped the pill when just metres away from scoring Cronulla's first points.
The Cowboys' unblemished first half came undone when Chad Townsend recovered his own bomb in the shadows of half-time as the visitors got within a converted try after being thoroughly outplayed over the first 40 minutes.
Up 12-6 heading into the second half, the Cowboys found a cheap two points on the very first possession of the term when Michael Ennis read Johnathan Thurston's fifth-tackle wrap-around play a little too well – penalised for holding Thurston off the ball.
The Sharks went in again in the 49th minutes when a regulation second-man play led to Barba turning it on the inside for a storming Bird to plough through Gavin Cooper, Thurston and Lachlan Coote.
Having not scored since the 21-minute mark the Cowboys were sputtering in attack, and new Cronulla five-eighth James Maloney levelled the scores at 14-14 when he slotted an easy penalty half an hour from full-time.
For the better part of 25 minutes it was a back-and-forth slugfest with few opportunities until Lowe crossed to the right of the sticks in the 75th minute.
A couple of injuries came out of the game, with Cowboys winger Antonio Winterstein leaving the field 22 minutes out from time after friendly fire from Gavin Cooper and Sharks skipper Paul Gallen leaving the field with a suspected knee injury.
North Queensland Cowboys 20 (Justin O'Neill, Kane Linnett, Ethan Lowe tries; Johnathan Thurston 4 goals) defeated Cronulla Sharks 14 (Chad Townsend, Jack Bird tries; James Maloney 3 goals) at 1300SMILES Stadium. Crowd: 15,519. Half-time: Cowboys 12-6. On Report: nil. Injuries: Antonio Winterstein (Cowboys – head knock); Paul Gallen (Sharks – knee)