A brutal 80 minutes from a fresh Sharks outfit has bundled the 2015 premiers out of this year's title race to book themselves into a Grand Final 20 years after their last decider.
Long-suffering Shire fans will see their team contest a decider in a united competition for just the third time – and the first since 1978 – following the convincing 32-20 win in front of a huge crowd of 36,717 almost entirely home fans at Allianz Stadium on Friday night.
The win will be particularly satisfying given the 39-0 blitzing the Cowboys handed the Sharks in Townsville in last year's semi-final en route to their premiership. An exhausting 90-minute epic last week against the Broncos looked to take its toll on the premiers as their energy was sapped right from the outset by a well-rested Cronulla outfit.
Five-eighth James Maloney confirmed his billing as the buy of the year with a starring role, including two tries, while halfback Chad Townsend bounced back from his benching against the Raiders a fortnight ago with an excellent 80 minute game of his own.
Prop Andrew Fifita monstered North Queensland's defenders all night while left-edge back-rower Wade Graham had one of his best games of the year as he and Maloney tormented Michael Morgan and Coen Hess, particularly in the first half.
Things got ugly for the Cowboys almost from the get-go when Lachlan Coote dropped Cronulla's first kick of the night in just the second minute.
That error allowed Cronulla to pile on a mountain of pressure through repeat sets but were denied by a few try-saving tackles and impressive sliding defence; Andrew Fifita came close but was penalised for a double movement and Townsend almost scored again when Coote ill-advisedly left a grubber close to the dead ball line.
First points didn't come until a Maloney penalty goal in the 17th minute as the Cowboys continued to put themselves under pressure with poor errors.
The pressure finally told when a monster Fifita hit-up and offload allowed Maloney to spread it wide for Sosaia Feki to ground it just inside the corner post.
Despite an ongoing mountain of pressure, the Sharks opted for another penalty goal when a Kyle Feldt dropout sailed into touch on the full to make it 8-0 after 27 minutes.
Cronulla's utter dominance on the field wasn't truly reflected on the scoreboard until Maloney split the line and found a brilliant late pass to send Townsend over to make it 14-0 at the break.
The first half stats – 59 per cent possession, 817 metres versus 395 for the Cowboys and just five missed tackles to North Queensland's 23 – told the story of Cronulla's dominance to that point.
Desperately needing first points after the break, North Queensland got a dream start when a penalty piggy-backed them into range before Coote pickpocketed Townsend after he fielded a kick to finally get the Cowboys on the board and back in the contest at 14-6.
Fatigue though became a huge factor for the defending premiers as every Cronulla set bent their line with players falling off tackles; Sharks players offloaded at will and marched relentlessly downfield.
Luke Lewis burst over off a Townsend flat ball before Maloney somehow planted the ball despite the attention of three defenders through sheer force of will in a quick double strike that put the result beyond doubt at 26-6 with 22 minutes remaining.
Maloney added a penalty goal before bagging his second with a 50-metre intercept try.
Feldt dragged a couple back, bagging a quick double inside the final 10 minutes before a last-gasp four-pointer to Coen Hess to narrow the final margin to 32-20 but it was too little too late for North Queensland.
Cronulla Sharks 32 (James Maloney 2, Sosaia Feki, Chad Townsend, Luke Lewis tries; James Maloney 6 goals) defeated North Queensland Cowboys 20 (Kyle Feldt 2, Lachlan Coote, Coen Hess tries; Johnathan Thurston 2 goals) at Allianz Stadium. Half time: Cronulla 14-0. Crowd Crowd: 36,717.
Game on. Data off.
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