Out all all the preliminary finals this weekend, the last match most resembled the intensity of a grand final, especially in its last twenty minutes, with only two points separating the two teams fourteen minutes out from the end, and Jack Bird and Jason Taumalolo both putting down what initially felt as if they might have been match-winning tries. In the five minues before it eventually slide into extra time, the game reached a high-octane, adrenalin-pumped volatility that actually exceeded a fair few grand finals I’ve watched, while the additional ten minutes saw the Cowboys pull off an incredible reprisal and revision of the 2015 showdown in the absence of Matt Scott and Johnathan Thurston, finally hitting the lead for the first and only time, by one point, at the 85th minute.
The result was shattering for the Sharks, to say the least, partly because the return of Bird and Wade Graham meant that they were playing with their very best lineup of 2017, against a team that were without two of their most important players. In some ways, it felt as if Cronulla had to score back to back wins just to prevent their fans waiting another fifty years for a premiership, and yet with Bird departing the club and Gallen on the verge of retirement, it seems as if any chance of channelling the momentum of last year’s final is done and dusted, even in the medium term, let alone in the immediate future.
To make matters worse, the Sharks almost pulled off a last-minute try along the lines of Andrew Fifita’s final four-pointer against the Storm last year, as Gallen chose to run the ball midway through the tackle count only to find himself coming up agonisingly short when he crashed at the line. Watching the frustration flood his face as he realised what had happened was like reliving every Blues loss of the last decade in one moment, as I suddenly realised just how cathartic the Cronulla win had been as a New South Wales supporter.
Back at the beginning of the game, it was Chad Townsend who put down the first try, although how you felt about it came down to whether or not you thought that Antonio Winterstein had managed to ground the Steeden on the Cowboys’ try line after some fumbling under the high ball. The Bunker ruled that he hadn’t, and that the ball had remained live throughout the ensuing scramble, with Townsend finally managing to tet a hand to it for a try that felt even more displaced from the opposition’s perception of the game than Josh Ado-Carr’s opening points against the Eels a day before.
Sometimes those kind of ambiguous tries can hinder more than help the team that puts them down, and so it was with Cronulla, who may have been on the board, but still hadn’t managed to stamp their signature on the opening minutes of the game quite as emphatically as Shane Flanagan might have liked. It was perhaps no surprise, then, that neither the Sharks nor the Cowboys managed to score another try until well into the second half, despite some fairly classy moves from the hosts over the opening of this first stanza.
Sixteen minutes in Jaylen Brailey stripped the ball from Scott Bolton – a gutsy movement given their difference in size – after what initially appeared to be a deft midfield kick from Winterstein found Valentine Holmes right on the chest. The Sharks chose to take the two – it was necessary to translate the strip directly into points – with James Maloney managing to slot the Steeden comfortably through the posts from the sideline. For a game that had been unusually replete with intercepts and rapid changeovers, this David and Goliath battle between the Cronulla hooker and the Cowboys prop seemed to bode well for Sharks fans.
Seven minutes later, the momentum seemed to be about to turn the other way, as Holmes lost his cool under the high ball, fumbling his pickup of a 40/20 attempt from Michael Morgan despite the lack of any immediate threat from the Cowboys kick chase. North Queensland got the scrum feed, and then three successive penalties, as Jason Taumalolo surged at the line twice, Morgan tried to burrow through beside the post, and Winterstein also almost put down points, only for Javid Bowen to cough up the ball on the first tackle of the third set in response to just the kind of clinical tackle that makes Bird such an asset in defence.
It was a real confidence-destroyer for the Cows, especially once Bird reprised his tackle on Bowen nine minutes later, albeit without forcing him to drop the ball this time around. Yet Bowen had the last laugh, since the last three minutes of the first half turned out to be an expected boon for North Queensland, resulting in a very sudden and unexpected change in momentum. The prelude was a deflected kick from Morgan that the referees awarded with a Cowboys scrum feed, thanks to Brailey getting a hand to the Steeden before it ricocheted over the sideline.
From there, the Sharks put in some of their best goal line defence of the night, including yet another terrific shot from Bird, this time on Jack Hampton, that culminated with Maloney breaking into open space, only for the whistle to blow and the run to be rewound, following some unnecessary interference from Holmes on Morgan. Despite the penalty occurring right beneath the posts, the Cowboys chose to tap and go, a decision that really paid off, although perhaps not quite in the way that they were expecting.
Thirty seconds out from the siren, and possibly still smarting from his aborted run, Maloney repeated Holmes’ brainsnap with an obstruction on Ethan Lowe that was all the more undisciplined in that the North Queensland second rower didn’t have a chance of laying hands on the Steeden. In a drastic reversal of his previous dash to the halfway line, Maloney was binned at the very worst time to lose a player, forcing the Sharks to defend with a twelve man team over the first ten minutes of the second stanza, against an opposition refreshed by the break and remotivated by their time in the sheds.
This time, the Cowboys decided to take the two, with Lowe putting down the first points of the afternoon for North Queensland after the siren, as Maloney’s obstruction turned out to have ironically gifted him some points after all. No surprise, then, that this felt more like a try, or even a converted try, than a humble penalty goal, seeming to level the scoreline rather than merely placing the Cowboys on the board. It was a particularly debilitating end to the first half, and especially for Maloney, who gives away more penalties than any other player, and whose erratic impulses are admittedly sometimes brilliant, but unfortunately not in this case.
Not surprisingly, the Cowboys were the next to put down points, taking advantage of Maloney’s absence from the field to bring the score to 8-6 seven minutes after the break. As so often occurs in clutch situations for North Queensland, the team instinctively moved the ball across to their right winger on the final tackle, with Morgan sending across a soaring harbour bridge pass after glimpsing that Kyle Feldt had a bit of space to negotiate.
It didn’t hurt that this was also Feldt’s best fends in some weeks, as he slammed through Sosaia Feki and maintained possession in the process to finally ground the ball right in the corner. To make matters worse for the Sharks, the Cowboys’ burst of field position had come off the back of a Cronulla penalty. It must have been agonising, too, for Maloney to see points put down a mere minute and a half before he was allowed back on the field.
That just made it all the more cathartic when Bird crashed over about ten minutes later for the second and last Cronulla try of the night. Following Feldt’s four points, North Queensland had seemed like a new team, doubling down on their defence, and finally managing to keep the Sharks within their own twenty by the fifth tackle of a particularly gruelling defensive set. Yet on that very tackle a knee in the ruck from Hampton gifted Cronulla just the field position they needed, and all of a sudden the energy shifted, and the hosts surged forward for an equally scintillating attacking set that culminated with one of their best fifth tackle options of the night.
Clearly keen to make up for his earlier brainsnap, Maloney now sent out a clean, clinical pass to Townsend, who responded with one of the best kicks of the game, sending the Steeden up into the right corner, as Bird followed it with a galvanising kick chase and grounding, despite Winterstein surging up from behind. With Maloney then pulling off a challenging sideline conversion, the Sharks finally seemed to have regained their composure, and looked set to take ownership of the remainder of the game.
As Cronulla grew more and more confident, it became clearer and clearer that North Queensland needed a one-man gamechanger. At the sixty-third minute Jason Taumalolo provided it, slamming over five metres out from the line for a twist-and-spin that continued even as two, three and then four Sharks defenders jumped on his back. In fact, there were other Cronulla forwards standing around, but they were content to watch, assuming that four players would be more than enough to prevent Taumalolo getting the ball to ground.
Indeed, Taumalolo himself seemed surprised when the referees came down with a ruling of try, and the Bunker was unable to decisively deny that the Steeden had made contact with the turf. Making over twenty metres on one of his following runs, and clocking up a staggering 259 metres over the rest of the night, Taumalolo put in one of his best ever performances in North Queensland colours and fully graduated into his status as the other J.T.
From there, things proceeded to a nail-biting finish, with a knock-on from Gallen gifting the ball back to the Cowboys, and a strip on the following set providing Lowe with a field goal to level the scores. In the final two minutes, Gallen opted to run for the line instead of getting the ball back to Maloney for a field goal attempt, only to come to ground just short of the paint, in what felt like a nightmarish inversion of Fifita’s four points at the end of the 2016 grand final.
As if things weren’t suspenseful enough, the Sharks failed to pack the subsequent scrum quick enough, with the scrum siren ringing out like a hallucinatory prophecy of the final siren, and the Cows glimpsing some last-minute field position as they entered ten extra minutes of a game in which they had never once been in front.
If the game had felt like a grand final in the last twenty minutes, then the extra ten minutes made it feel like an explosive grand final, partly because this format has now been reserved for finals footy, but also because the awareness that they had to last an entire ten minutes – and that the winner would have to play next week on top of that – forced both teams to steel themselves with the kind of resolve we only tend to see at the end of the year, or on the brink of Origin.
Unfortunately for Cronulla supporters, that steely resolve didn’t translate into discipline, with the Sharks losing the ball twice after the eightieth minute – the first off a loose carry from Luke Lewis that nevertheless appeared to have been directly played at by Taumalolo; the second from a slip and trip from Holmes after a terrific kick return that saw him storm up through the ruck before he hit the ground.
By contrast, the opposition seemed to become more and more focused, with Morgan getting a field goal on the five minute siren to put the Cowboys in front for the first and only time in the game. With another five to go, the celebrations were cautious, and it was a moment that encapsulated everything different between golden point and extra time, conjuring up the 2015 grand final and promising a similar clutch win here if North Queensland could just manage to hold on.
Intensifying the previous eighty minutes to a mere five, this final game-within-the-game was like seeing a preview of the grand final that both of these teams might be playing in two weeks, which of course made it all the more agonising for the Sharks to come up short by the time extra time had played out. Hopefully we’ll be in for more surprises over the next few weeks, but it’s also hard to think that any will top this game – rugby league at its most suspenseful, surprising and exciting.