Cowboys lament horror first half
For 20 years they were the hunters. After last year's grand final win, they became the hunted. And on Friday night, the North Queensland Cowboys were the victims of a Sharks feeding frenzy that put an end to their spirited title defence.
The Cowboys were never in the contest from the moment fullback Lachlan Coote spilled a regulation kick in just the second minute, paving the way for an abysmal first half that robbed them of any energy at the backend of the game.
Cronulla had almost 60 per cent of the ball in the first 40 minutes while the Cowboys simply couldn't hold onto the Steeden as they tried to get out of their own end.
The 32-20 result probably flattered the visitors, but to their credit, they fought to the final whistle to pile on three late tries to make the scoreline more respectable.
It was always going to take a monumental effort to back up from last week's heart-stopping extra-time win over the Broncos, and ultimately it proved a bridge too far.
While there was no denying the effects of last week's epic, Cowboys coach Paul Green refused to blame the Brisbane game for his side's poor showing against the Sharks.
"You can use it as an excuse but we were a fair way off our best tonight and I don't think that was [the reason we lost]," he said.
"Fatigue was obviously a big part of it [because] we've had a big couple of weeks with a trip to Melbourne, a 90-minute game last week and a trip to Sydney, but that's not an excuse.
"We just needed to keep our composure a bit better at different times. Particularly at the start of the game we tried to force things that weren't there and we put ourselves under too much pressure.
"After that first try in the second half we got a bit of a sniff, but again, we just weren't able to play the game at the right end of the field for long enough periods."
Cowboys skipper Johnathan Thurston has rallied his troops to impossible wins over the past 12 months, but even he was helpless to stop the Cronulla onslaught.
Like his coach, the 2015 Clive Churchill Medal winner pinned the loss on his side's uncharacteristically poor completion rate.
"It was extremely hard, especially when you keep shooting yourself in the foot," Thurston said.
"I think we came into half-time with about 60 per cent completion rate and a lot of that was played down our own end.
"Like Greeny said, we were defending well but we couldn't transition into attack and we kept turning the ball over.
"It doesn't matter whether you're playing normal games or semi-finals, you need to be playing your best footy and we were far from our best tonight.
"We had a really good opportunity there to do something special but when more than half of your team aren't playing near their best and you come up against a side that's fresh from a week off and had all the run of play and momentum, then you're going to be on the back foot."
Given everything they've achieved over the past two years, it's hard to look back at Friday's loss too harshly, but according to Green, it was "an opportunity lost".
Victory would have given North Queensland the opportunity to become the first team since the Brisbane Broncos in 1992 and 1993 to win back-to-back competitions.
Green conceded that their task had been made tougher due to a noticeable lift from opposition teams given their premier status but said his troops would use the preliminary final exit as motivation heading into 2017.
"You've got to work so hard to give yourself the chance that we had tonight," he said.
"That's probably the tough thing, but the disappointment we're feeling at the moment, we're going to need to hang onto a little bit of that and keep the fire in the belly next year.
"Teams rarely played poorly against us so that takes a fair bit out of you. It's not just the 17 or 19 players, you probably need a few more than that to play consistently well throughout the year. But I thought we coped pretty well with that.
"We certainly gave ourselves a shot – we made the preliminary final tonight – so that's the tough part. When you've been through it and achieved it, you know what it takes.
"We know what we've got to do to give ourselves another chance, but we've got to wait 12 months to do it."
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