Is this it?
After 50 years of heartbreak, the Cronulla Sharks are one win away from their maiden premiership after downing reigning premiers North Queensland 32-20 in the preliminary final.
Cronulla’s win was as emphatic as it was deserved, as the boys wearing black, white and blue ran in six tries to four to advance to their first grand final in 20 years.
More than 30,000 Sharks fans packed into Allianz Stadium on Friday night, creating a pulsating atmosphere and ending the myth once and for all that they don’t like to travel.
They will travel in their thousands out to ANZ Stadium next Sunday after their halves James Maloney and Chad Townsend steered them to a memorable victory.
Cronulla started brightly when a wobbly Townsend kick was dropped by Lachlan Coote, giving the Sharks early field position.
Wade Graham then forced a repeat set with a deft kick before a Graham bust saw him earn a penalty after being tackled just short of the try line.
Cronulla thought they had opened the scoring after six minutes when Andrew Fifita charged over only for the try to be disallowed for a double movement.
Another Cowboys mistake from the ensuing set, this time from Justin O’Neill, again put Cronulla on the attack.
The Sharks thought they had scored again when Coote and Johnathan Thurston tried to let a Michael Ennis grubber roll over the deadball line, only for Townsend to storm through and attempt to ground it.
But Coote got a touch on the ball with his foot just in time to force a goalline drop out.
It was all Cronulla in the opening 10 minutes, with the Sharks enjoying 70 per cent of the possession while North Queensland could only complete three of their opening six sets – and eight of 13 for the half.
Cronulla did finally get on the board through a Maloney penalty goal after 17 minutes and five minutes later they had their first try.
A simple shift left from a scrum on North Queensland’s line saw Sosaia Feki touch down in the corner to give the Sharks a 6-0 lead.
Cronulla were rampant, earning another repeat set after Lewis smashed Coote back into the in-goal after a perfectly weighted Townsend bomb.
Another Cowboys mistake – this time Kyle Feldt putting the dropout out on the full – saw Maloney extend the lead to 8-0 with another penalty goal.
But the Cowboys could have been right back in it moments later only for Townsend to save a certain try.
Valentine Holmes fumbled the ball returning a kick in his own in-goal and, as Thurston was about to fall on the ball, Townsend managed to get back and scoop the ball dead.
It was to be a 12-point swing for Cronulla, as five minutes later Townsend was to go from try-saver to try-scorer.
Strong work from Chris Heighington saw Cronulla work the ball wide to Maloney, who isolated himself one on one with Cowboys’ back-rower Coen Hess.
Maloney sliced through the line and drew Coote before finding Townsend backing up on the inside to score next to the posts to give Cronulla a 14-0 lead at the break.
But the Cowboys came out all guns blazing in the second half and within three minutes they had reduced the deficit to 14-6.
A Thurston grubber bounced up into the arms of Coote to score before the Sharks were to re-establish their lead.
A storming Jayson Bukuya run set up a Sharks repeat set and a move that involved Ennis and Townsend saw Lewis crash over to give Cronulla a 20-6 advantage.
Moments later Maloney made it a 20-point lead when he again chose to run close to the line before holding off three defenders to wrestle his way across the stripe.
Another Maloney penalty goal with 15 minutes remaining made the score 28-6 before the five-eighth made one of the plays of the game.
The Cowboys retrieved their own short kick off, only for Maloney to take a finger tip-intercept and race 60 metres to score in the corner and seal Cronulla’s first grand final appearance since 1997.
Kyle Feldt scored a pair of late consolation tries for the Cowboys, as did Hess.
The Sharks will take on the winner of tomorrow night’s clash between Melbourne and Canberra at ANZ Stadium next Sunday.
Cronulla Sharks 32 (James Maloney two, Sosaia Feki, Chad Townsend, Luke Lewis tries. James Maloney six goals)
North Queensland Cowboys 20 (Kyle Feldt two, Lachlan Coote, Coen Hess tries. Johnathan Thurston two goals)
at Allianz Stadium, Moore Park
Leader man of the match: James Maloney (Sharks)
Sharks’ next match: Grand final v Melbourne/Canberra at ANZ Stadium, Sydney Olympic Park next Sunday.