Sharks 18 Cowboys 14
An Andrew Fifita-inspired Sharks woke from a first-half slumber to end a baffling run of home defeats, reeling in a 14-point deficit to down a Johnathan Thurston-less Cowboys on Thursday night.
Staring down the barrell of a fourth loss from just five matches at Southern Cross Group Stadium this season – their only win in the Shire previously in 2017 was a one-point nailbiter over wooden spoon fancies Newcastle – Shane Flanagan’s premiers mounted a second-half surge to win 18-14.
Fifita all but carved his name in stone for Laurie Daley’s NSW side for the State of Origin opener, tormenting a tiring Cowboys and setting up a crucial second-half try for Chad Townsend.
A flat Cronulla were forced to do it the hard way though, trailing 14-0 at the break before struggling halves James Maloney – a certainty to line up alongside Fifita at Suncorp Stadium – and Townsend unshackled an often pedestrian Sharks attack.
Fifita’s fixture as a part of Daley’s front-row rotation was never in doubt with another barnstorming display – and he needed time to find some support acts as the Sharks overcame another error-strewn display.
But like they have on so many occasions previously they found a way to win when far from their best.
Flanagan is likely to lose Fifita, Maloney, Wade Graham, Jack Bird and possibly Valentine Holmes to State of Origin selection and has to face the Bulldogs and Tigers without them during the representative period. And he somehow has to figure out how to win more consistently at a ground which once used to be a fortress.
Unbeaten on the road and trailing only fellow grand finalists Melbourne on the ladder, the Sharks wore down a brave Cowboys who rode Michael Morgan’s first-half masterclass to the brink of another upset.
Given the history between the sides – they had met in three of the last four finals series – it should have been no surprise there were a few twists and turns late in this one.
Sosaia Feki had a forgettable first half, but scrambled over for the matchwinner with less than 15 minutes left to keep the Sharks firmly entrenched inside the top four.
Despite training with the squad on Wednesday, Thurston’s absence from the team list means it will be almost two months by the time he pulls on a Cowboys jumper again. But it would be a brave man to suggest he won’t don the Queensland maroon in a fortnight’s time.
Morgan, the reluctant conductor, was again peerless for the second Thursday night in a row against a Sydney powerhouse expected to handle a Thurston-less Cowboys who again played above their weight.
While it was a first 40 minutes to remember for Morgan, it was 40 to forget for Feki. He bobbled an inch-perfect James Maloney kick when it appeared easier to score than not, crabbed too far infield as Kyle Feldt set up Ben Hampton for the second try and then was outleapt by his opposite number for the third.
Prior to that Feldt’s wing partner Antonio Winterstein was aided by a crisp pass from Morgan – who also booted the most improbable grass-cutting 40-20 – to open the scoring.
While in general play the Cowboys barely missed a beat without Thurston, they can’t welcome his right boot back fast enough after Ethan Lowe forfeited goalkicking responsibility with a comedic shot at penalty goal from almost next to the posts.
Feldt duly stepped in at the next chance and it was only Maloney’s perfect goalkicking which split the sides.
It was only fitting Morgan’s frustrated opposite Maloney would throw the Sharks a lifeline early in the second half when he danced over from close range, the hosts’ at time impotent attack finally finding a crack in the Cowboys wall.
And it was Maloney’s halves partner Chad Townsend, himself enduring a difficult night, who dragged the Sharks within two points after Fifita pierced the line and popped a one-handed offload to the waiting No.7. Then the ultimate redemption.
Tormented in the first half, Feki tiptoed down the sideline to avoid the grasp of Feldt to put the Sharks in front for good.
Cronulla Sharks 18 (Maloney, Townsend, Feki tries; Maloney 3 goals) def North Queensland Cowboys 14 (Winterstein, Hampton, Feldt tries; Feldt goal) at Southern Cross Group Stadium. Referees: Ashley Klein, Alan Shortall. Crowd: 8557.