Cronulla have kept pace with the NRL’s top four, spoiling Johnathan Thurston’s Sydney farewell with a tense 28-16 victory over North Queensland on Saturday night.
The Sharks eventually won the arm wrestle with the desperate Cowboys, with Cronulla making the most of Penrith’s slip up earlier in the afternoon to climb to equal fourth alongside bitter local rivals St George Illawarra and the Panthers.
Andrew Fifita looked to have finally secured the result with a barnstorming try – reminiscent of his match-winner in the 2016 grand final – before seemingly trying to send a message to the coach’s box.
But Cowboys scored again through Gavin Cooper to keep their hopes alive, only for Josh Dugan to seal victory after North Queensland had lost John Asiata to the sin bin.
Cronulla looked to have taken an early lead only for Matt Moylan’s solo effort to be questionably chalked off by the video referee bunker officials.
Paul Gallen was ruled to have stopped in the defensive line but whether he impeded the Cowboys defenders enough remained up for debate.
The Sharks did score first after 15 minutes. The electrifying Valentine Holmes scooped the ball up one-handed at the play the ball and sped between two Cowboys defenders to get into the back field.
He then veered to the left away from his support where he was tackled, only for Cronulla to be given a penalty for a slow play the ball.
From the ensuing set, a shift to the right saw Chad Townsend hit Luke Lewis with a quality short pass for the second-rower to stroll through untouched for his second try of the season.
But the Cowboys reduced the deficit two minutes later with a try of their own.
Thurston showed all his class close to Cronulla’s line as he caught a pass under pressure before flicking it out the back to Coen Hess. The back-rower showed good hands to reel in the pass and touch down.
Cronulla then lost boom centre Jesse Ramien to an ankle injury he had suffered early on, with Kurt Capewell shifting to the back line. They would also lose Ricky Leutele to a knee problem just after half-time which saw Lewis also forced out wide, leaving Cronulla without their starting centres.
The Sharks paid for some poor discipline when referee Matt Cecchin pinged Jayson Bukuya for an incorrect play the ball 30 metres out from his own line.
Thurston took the opportunity to level the scores at 6-all with a penalty goal. But the Cowboys didn’t heed the warning, with Ben Hampton also penalised for an incorrect play the ball.
That gave Cronulla the field position for Holmes to seemingly cross for a try, only for Cecchin to rule no try before sending it to the video referee bunker.
This decision was more clear, with Scott Sorensen penalised for obstruction, Cronulla’s fifth disallowed try for obstruction in their last three matches. It also spoiled Holmes’ 100th NRL game, with the fullback’s chase for a record-breaking 20th try of the season for Cronulla having to wait another week.
The sides were locked at 6-all at half-time but Cronulla would snatch back the lead inside 10 minutes of the second half.
The Sharks were on the front foot from the start, with Townsend and Lewis forcing a drop out as Cronulla tore North Queensland apart up the middle.
And they took back the lead through Townsend when Te Maire Martin dropped a bomb allowing the Sharks to recover the ball. The Sharks No.7 then sliced through to score from the next play to score next to the posts.
But the Cowboys, looking to send Thurston off a winner as well as fight their own battle against the wooden spoon, would hit back.
Jordan McLean, in his fourth match back from injury, barged over from close range to get the Cowboys back to 12-all.
Cronulla though, with their top four hopes on the line, refused to quit.
Fifita, who had only just returned to the field, was at his brilliant, hulking best. James Segeyaro – who started at hooker in the absence of Jayden Brailey who missed the match with an ear injury – fired a short pass at the prop.
Fifita stormed over three defenders to reach out and score, similar to his match-winning try in the 2016 grand final. And he appeared to have a message for coach Shane Flanagan, as the fired up big man looked to point towards the coach’s box at Shark Park.
The Cowboys though wouldn’t go away. Gavin Cooper somehow grounded the ball in the left corner out of dummy half, giving Thurston the chance to level the scores from the sideline with seven minutes remaining.
But the champion halfback pushed his kick wide, allowing the Sharks some breathing space.
And Cronulla made the most of their let off, with Moylan making a break down field, leading to Holmes being cut down just short of the line.
From the ensuing play, Dugan looked to have scored from a Segeyaro cross field kick only for replays to show he had knocked on. But play was brought back for a penalty, with a retreating Asiata sent to the sin bin for being offside.
Dugan would finally get his try, barging over from close range, to seal the result and Cronulla’s chase for a top four finish.
Bukuya would add some gloss to the result with a late try as the Sharks maintained their hunt for a top four finish.
Cronulla Sharks 28 (Luke Lewis, Chad Townsend, Andrew Fifita, Josh Dugan, Jayson Bukuya tries. Valentine Holmes four goals)
North Queensland Cowboys 16 (Coen Hess, Jordan McLean, Gavin Cooper tries. Johnathan Thurston two goals)
at Southern Cross Group Stadium, Woolooware
Leader man of the match: Chad Townsend (Sharks)
Sharks’ next two: Knights (home), Bulldogs (away)