Finally, have the real Cronulla Sharks come out to play?
Cronulla put in one of their best first half performances of the season to down North Queensland 26-16 on Saturday night – and possibly get their premiership defence back on track.
The Sharks ran in four tries to one in the first 40 minutes to open up a 24-6 half-time lead in Townsville to maintain their place in the NRL top four.
It was an almost flawless first half from the reigning premiers as they carved up the Cowboys through the middle with a string of offloads. The main criticism of Cronulla this season is that they have only shown fleeting glimpses of their best form. Brilliant performances like those against the Raiders in Canberra and the Roosters at Gosford have been offset by ugly losses, such as the defeats to Manly and the Gold Coast.
But for 40 minutes tonight Cronulla looked back to their rampant best. Andrew Fifita and Paul Gallen dominated the Cowboys’ pack. James Maloney, playing his 200th NRL game, ran the show. Valentine Holmes looked dangerous. It was an impressive way to bounce back from two heavy losses.
The Sharks had the lead after just five minutes through young hooker Jayden Brailey who returned from a broken jaw. Luke Lewis made a line break on the right edge then showed lovely composure and skill to hold up his pass back on the inside for Brailey to score.
Cronulla doubled their lead five minutes later through Gallen, who celebrated his 301st NRL game with a try under the posts after Maloney produced a delightful run and pass close to the line.
The Cowboys went close soon after only for Holmes to produce a try-saving tackle on Ben Hampton. The Sharks could have gone further ahead only for Gerard Beale to drop the ball over the line after a flick pass from Kurt Capewell.
North Queensland got themselves on the board midway through the half when Te Maire Martin touched down from a Michael Morgan grubber kick. But the Cowboys lost Morgan to a head-injury assessment shortly after when he was hit in a Wade Graham tackle.
In his time off the field the Cowboys gave up two more converted tries. The first was a sublime solo effort from Sharks halfback Chad Townsend. The second came from Maloney again deciding to run close to the line before finding Holmes.
The Cowboys had to battle a host of injuries. Morgan returned from his head knock but they lost Kalyn Ponga and John Asiata to arm injuries. Jason Taumololo was also forced off for a head-injury assessment.
Maloney had Cronulla out to a 26-6 lead 10 minutes before full-time before the Cowboys scored a pair of consolation tries late on through Ethan Lowe and Morgan. As well as Maloney’s milestone, Sharks centre Ricky Leutele celebrated his 100th NRL game.
The win for fourth-placed Cronulla (32) sets up a big clash against the third-placed Roosters (34) at Southern Cross Group Stadium in the penultimate round on Saturday night.
Cronulla Sharks 26 (Jayden Brailey, Paul Gallen, Chad Townsend, Valentine Holmes tries. James Maloney five goals)
North Queensland Cowboys 16 (Te Maire Martin, Ethan Lowe, Michael Morgan tries. Ethan Lowe two goals)
at 1300 Smiles Stadium, Townsville
Leader man of the match: James Maloney (Sharks)
Sharks’ next two: Roosters (home), Knights (away)