Cronulla’s premiership defence is over after the Sharks suffered a controversial and heartbreaking extra-time loss to North Queensland.
The Sharks went down 15-14 at Allianz Stadium on Sunday after North Queensland had come back from 14-6 down to secure a 14-all draw in normal time.
The Cowboys snapped a four-game losing streak against the Sharks and a seven-game losing run at Allianz Stadium to advance to next week’s elimination semi-final against Parramatta.
It was the fourth installment in an epic series of finals matches between the two clubs, with the Sharks and Cowboys meeting for the third year in a row and fourth time in five years in an elimination final.
It was the 2016 premiers who took the lead inside three minutes through Chad Townsend. Antonio Winterstein fielded a high Townsend kick, only for Luke Lewis and Jack Bird to race through and tackle the winger. As they dragged him into the in-goal Winterstein lost the ball, allowing Townsend the easiest of tries.
The Sharks extended their lead through a James Maloney penalty goal on the back of young hooker Jayden Brailey stealing the ball one-on-one from Cowboys prop Scott Bolton to give Cronulla possession.
The 2015 champions started to get a foothold in the match on the back of a number of penalties only for Cronulla’s goal line defence to remain strong. At one point the Cowboys had four repeat sets after Valentine Holmes had failed to defuse a kick but the Sharks held firm, with Bird winning possession back for Cronulla with a bone-rattling hit on Javid Bowen.
In keeping with the theme of the first weekend of the finals controversy finally arrived with a pair of incidents just before half-time. The first saw Holmes penalised for holding onto a Cowboys marker after the Sharks fullback had played the ball after diving back into the field of play. Maloney had picked the ball up from dummy-half and scooted 40 metres, only for the play to be called back.
From the ensuing set, Maloney was sent to the sin bin for a professional foul after sticking out an arm on Ethan Lowe as the Cowboys back-rower chased through a kick close to the line. Lowe kicked the penalty goal to have North Queensland on the board at half-time, while Sharks captain Paul Gallen and Wade Graham remonstrated with referee Ashley Klein as the teams headed towards the sheds.
Cronulla almost held the Cowboys out with 12 men for the first 10 minutes of the second half, only for Kyle Feldt to finally break Cronulla’s resistance as he beat Sosaia Feki to touch down in the corner.
But when Maloney returned, the Sharks lifted again.
Cronulla extended their lead when Townsend produced a perfect grubber kick to allow Bird to race through and score out wide. Maloney’s sideline conversion had the Sharks in front 14-6 with a quarter of the game remaining.
The Cowboys refused to quit and were back in the game when Jason Taumalolo showed great strength to hold off five Sharks defenders to score next to the posts.
The Sharks then blew a golden chance to put the result to bed when Graham made a break from deep inside Cronulla’s half. But after the Sharks shifted the ball right, Bird put his grubber kick dead in goal after being forced to stretch for a Luke Lewis pass.
And the Cowboys would make Cronulla pay when they drew level through another Lowe penalty goal. There was more controversy surrounding this one, with the Cowboys earning a repeat set despite Andrew Fifita appearing to knock the ball backwards attempting to field a grubber kick. From the next set, Matt Prior was ruled to have stripped the ball from Shaun Fensom 10 metres out from Cronulla’s line.
The Sharks then blew another opportunity to seal victory in the closing seconds. After marching downfield Maloney had a field goal attempt charged down, with Cronulla recovering the loose ball. Gallen then charged towards the Cowboys line but was ruled to have lost the ball when attempting to play it, despite his pleas that it was pushed out.
The game then moved into extra-time, with the Cowboys hitting the lead for the first time in the match thanks to a Michael Morgan field goal right on the stroke of half-time. Cronulla failed to create any real chances in the extra period, with their final hope evaporating when Fifita lost possession with 30 seconds remaining.
It was a bitter way for Cronulla to end their season, with 2016 premiership-winners Jack Bird and Gerard Beale having played their final matches for the club after agreeing deals with Brisbane and the New Zealand Warriors respectively.
North Queensland Cowboys 15 (Kyle Feldt, Jason Taumalolo tries. Ethan Lowe three goals. Michael Morgan field goal)
Cronulla Sharks 14 (Chad Townsend, Jack Bird tries. James Maloney three goals)
after extra-time at Allianz Stadium