A stunning Cronulla comeback saw the reigning premiers bank another vital two points with an 18-14 win over North Queensland on Thursday night.
Andrew Fifita was at his brilliant best for the Sharks, running for more than 160 metres before creating the match-turning try 18 minutes from full-time.
The Sharks’ poor home record looked like it would continue at half-time, with Cronulla trailing 14-0 after a lackluster first 40 minutes.
The Sharks had lost three of their opening four home games at Southern Cross Group Stadium to start their title defence, a far cry from their imperious home record last season – which they built their premiership success on – where they won 11 of their 12 games in the shire.
If the Sharks appeared flat, so did the home crowd early on. A disappointing 8,557 turned up on a Thursday night to watch the 2016 and 2015 premiers do battle.
Cronulla could have taken the lead after 10 minutes when Sosaia Feki appeared to touch down in the corner from a James Maloney grubber. While referee Ashley Klein ruled a try on the field, the video referee bunker officials overturned the decision, ruling a knock on against Feki.
Less than two minutes later North Queensland had gone up the other end and opened the scoring through Antonio Winterstein on the back of a penalty and two tackle count re-starts.
Five minutes before half-time the Cowboys extended their lead through a Ben Hampton try. Kyle Feldt had burnt Feki on the outside and run 50 metres before drawing Valentine Holmes, allowing Hampton to score untouched.
North Queensland appeared comfortable without their champion halfback Johnathan Thurston, out with a shoulder injury, thanks mainly to five-eighth Michael Morgan.
The Australian utility produced an unlikely 40/20 to give the Cowboys more field position and the chance to improve their advantage further. He then produced a pin point kick for Feldt to jump above Feki to score a minute before the break.
The Sharks showed their first real signs of life 10 minutes into the second half when Maloney produced a superb individual effort to reduce the deficit to 14-6, slicing between two Cowboys defenders before stepping past Lachlan Coote.
The comeback was well and truly on with 18 minutes left when Fifita produced a moment of magic. The giant prop broke the Cowboys line 40m out before holding off three defenders and somehow producing an offload for Chad Townsend to scoot through and score under the posts.
It was Luke Lewis’ turn to lift his side next. With Coote preparing to kick down field on the last, Lewis sprinted out of the line and produced a bone-rattling hit, locking up the ball and giving Cronulla possession on halfway.
There may have been less than 9,000 fans in the ground but they had Shark Park rocking soon after. From the ensuing set the Sharks marched down field before shifting left, with Holmes finding Feki to dance his way down the touch line to score and give Cronulla the lead for the first time.
It was another strange performance from the Sharks. Coach Shane Flanagan has been left scratching his head so far this season as to why his side have turned in mostly patchy performances. Their best form has been fleeting but they have continued to somehow get the job done.
The Sharks did enough to hold on to a vital victory that leaves them almost perfectly placed heading into what looks to be a testing State of Origin period. It is likely Cronulla will lose Fifita, Maloney, Wade Graham, Jack Bird and Valentine Holmes to rep duty but they, despite not being anywhere near their best, they still sit second, seemingly under the radar.
Cronulla Sharks 18 (James Maloney, Chad Townsend, Sosaia Feki tries. James Maloney three goals)
North Queensland Cowboys 14 (Antonio Winterstein, Ben Hampton, Kyle Feldt tries. Kyle Feldt goal)
at Southern Cross Group Stadium
Leader man of the match: Andrew Fifita (Sharks)
Sharks’ next three: Bulldogs (home), BYE, Storm (home)