The Cronulla Sharks have beaten the North Queensland Cowboys 26-16 at 1300SMILES Stadium, with the Cowboys being blown off the park in a 24-point first half marred by further injures to the struggling side.
The Cowboys stretched their player usage in 2017 to 32 players at the start of the game, seven of which have been debutants, before Kalyn Ponga and John Asiata suffered injuries on Saturday night.
Despite losing the game the Cowboys returned with grit and determination after half-time, while the Sharks could only find two points in the second half from a penalty goal, despite completing at a higher percentage than they did in their first half.
The win puts Cronulla back into the top four, while the Cowboys will finish Round 24 in eighth position and in desperate need of a win before the finals.
The Sharks drew first blood when a sharp dummy from Luke Lewis created space on the right edge, and the veteran's perfect inside ball to Jayden Brailey gave Cronulla the start they'd been looking for.
They remained on the attack and after pinning the Cowboys in their own end they struck again with James Maloney sidestepping Jason Taumalolo before handing it off to Paul Gallen to for Cronulla's second try.
The visitors almost went over again, this time on the wing, but Gerard Beale was cleaned up by Ben Hampton in a try-saving tackle.
The Cowboys made it a 12-point turnaround when Morgan grubbered ahead for Te Martin Martin to plan the ball down.
After a penalty for the hit that sent Morgan to the sheds the Cowboys went within a metre of scoring, but the Sharks did one better on their next set with Chad Townsend dummying to go himself and easily beating the wounded Ponga.
It started to turn into a blowout when Sharks fullback Valentine Holmes stretched out to plant the ball on the line.
The Cowboys' attack took a big hit when Wade Graham landed a high shot on Michael Morgan, sending the halfback to the sheds for a HIA. The Cowboys went within a metre of scoring, and after shifting Ponga to fullback and Hampton to halfback it became apparent Ponga had suffered an injury to his left arm.
The Sharks exploited the new fullback's weakness soon after when Chad Townsend threw the dummy to beat him and send Coen Hess across between the posts.
Despite his left arm dangling by his side Ponga returned to the field in the second half, as did Morgan. But the injury blows continued as Asiata injured his arm on the first tackle of the half, leaving the field and heading down the tunnel with a suspected broken arm only to return to the bench 10 minutes later.
The injuries didn't affect the Sharks' game plan, and they marched up the field on the back of four consecutive penalties to be planted firmly in the Cowboys' red zone. The break gave the Cowboys an opportunity to take Ponga off, and with Javid Bowen on the wing the managed to repel the Sharks' attack.
The Cowboys' night continued to spiral into despair as Jason Taumalolo left the field for a HIA, but despite the injury toll the Cowboys continued to keep the Sharks scoreless, with Ben Hampton putting in a second try-saver to deny James Segeyaro close to the line.
The Sharks realised the Cowboys has muscled up in defence and after their next penalty close to the line Maloney took the opportunity to take the penalty goal, stretching the Sharks' lead to 20 points.
North Queensland were finally rewarded for their resilience when a Morgan kick was grabbed at by a Sharks player, only to bounce back to Morgan and restart the set. The halfback made good use of the six tackles, giving a perfect pass to Ethan Lowe who dived over to score.
Morgan scored another consolation four-pointer 30 seconds before the siren sounded.
Sharks 26 (Brailey, Gallen, Holmes, Townsend tries; Maloney 5 goals) def. Cowboys 16 (Lowe, Morgan, Martin tries; Lowe 2 goals) at 1300SMILES Stadium. Half-time: 24-6. Crowd 15539.
NRL.com unofficial votes: 3 points – James Maloney; 2 points – Coen Hess; 1 point –Michael Morgan.