The North Queensland Cowboys find themselves on the edge of the top eight with two games remaining in the season, while the Sharks get some winning form ahead of the finals.
Sharks return to winner's circle
After a dour two weeks, the Cronulla Sharks have finally added two points to their NRL Telstra Premiership tally to regain their place in the top four. It wasn't the prettiest win, with their completion hovering at 65 per cent in the first half before jumping up to 80 per cent by the end of the game. Strangely, they scored fewer points in the second stanza, although that was largely due to the Cowboys' much-improved defence after half-time. Although they got the points in Townsville the Sharks will be eager to improve their consistency, with teams like the Brisbane Broncos and Melbourne Storm likely to dismantle them in the finals if they complete so poorly.
Cowboys' injury woes continue
"Spiralling into the depths of despair" is not an exaggeration of the Cowboys' injury crisis in 2017. They've used 32 players so far, seven of whom have been NRL debutants. North Queensland's injury toll worsened against the Sharks with Kalyn Ponga leaving the field early in the second half due to an arm injury. John Asiata also went down the tunnel and despite returning to the bench the forward didn't take the field again, his arm heavily strapped. The Cowboys' game was hindered further by HIA tests to Michael Morgan and Jason Taumaolo, who were among the best on ground on the night. Morgan scored a try and gave assists for two others, while Taumalolo made 146 metres and 30 tackles.
Cowboys teeter on edge of top eight
They'll finish Round 24 in eighth position on the Telstra Premiership ladder but the Cowboys have the Dragons, and depending on results could also have the Raiders, in hot pursuit for the last finals spot. North Queensland's next two games are against Wests Tigers, who went within four points of the second-placed Sydney Roosters on Saturday, and the Brisbane Broncos who are sitting well inside the top four. It puts them in a tight position, and with their injury toll the Cowboys could very well miss out on the finals for the first time in seven years. It would be a disappointing end to an incredibly courageous season from the Cowboys, who have persevered through their injury count to show they're a capable team even without star half Johnathan Thurston and representative prop Matt Scott.
Cowboys lack contact, Sharks exploit opening
By their own admission the Cowboys didn't hit hard enough in the first half, and the Sharks made good use of the space afforded to them by soft tackling. The visitors regularly found their arms free and dummies from James Maloney and Chad Townsend gave the Sharks several of their tries. The affect after half-time was obvious, with the Cowboys' defence stiffening up considerably and strangling the tries from the Sharks, even though they had a better completion rate than in their first 40 minutes. In hindsight the game will go down as one that got away for the Cowboys, given some stronger defence in the first half could have kept them within striking range of the Sharks.
Lack of experience disarms Cowboys
While a massive injury toll is one thing, it's the calibre of players missing from the Cowboys' line-up that took away most of their attacking ammunition against the Sharks. Johnathan Thurston and fullback Lachlan Coote both are sharp play-makers to say the least, while Matt Scott and Gavin Cooper give the Cowboys go forward and defensive strength from the middle to the edge. That's just the four biggest names the Cowboys have out, and when the likes of Justin O'Neill and Shaun Fensom are added, it becomes apparent why they struggle in different areas in the game at different times. It cost them dearly tonight, with Morgan and Te Maire Martin doing admirable jobs, but being stifled by the lack of other ball-playing and running option available to them.