ROUND 3: North Queensland Cowboys v. Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks (1300SMILES Stadium, 30/3/19)

The Cowboys were without Jason Taumalolo when they rocked up at 1300SMILES on Saturday night, for what would become Shaun Johnson’s first really big game in Cronulla colours. The past eight matches between these two clubs have been decided by twelve points or less, so it was a big deal for Johnson to rack up fourteen points with kicks alone, as he converted all seven of the tries that the Sharks laid down over these eighty minutes of football.

All but one of them came in the second half, however, as Cronulla accelerated into their best passage of football this season following the messiest opening stanza so far this year. It was almost comic how regularly both teams lost the football during the first part of the game, although it wasn’t merely a matter of discipline, but of the humid, muggy conditions in Townsville. With the temperature reaching thirty degrees, the footy was covered in a slippery slick for most of the match, necessitating a drink break halfway through the opening forty.

The Cowboys are more adapted to these conditions, and the game started off in their court, with Jake Clifford getting away with a strip on Matt Moylan in the opening minutes. This almost led to the first points for North Queensland, as Michael Morgan booted through a low kick at the other end of the park, where Ben Hampton got it down after Coen Hess was unable to get a hand to it. Yet the replay showed that Hess’ caution had brought Josh McGuire into the play, resulting in an offside penalty for the ex-Bronco and a deflating start for North Queensland.

Moylan couldn’t blame anyone but himself when he dropped the football midway through the next set, off a pass from Chad Townsend, in what would be the first of many handling errors across this first forty minutes of football. A pair of hard, compact runs from McGuire and Matt Scott now laid the platform for a superb bomb from Morgan – high enough to disorient the Sharks, but slow enough to give his chasers time to properly compete for it.

At first Kahu took possession, only for Moylan to come as close to a strip as humanly possible, causing it to tumble across to the Cows’ left edge, where Javid Bowen put it down with one hand. It was called a knock-on, giving Moylan a bit of a closure following his opening loss. Meanwhile, North Queensland now had two frustrating tryscoring sequences, and the momentum started to shift back towards the vistors after a confident opening from the home team.

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The Sharks did much better at the end of the next North Queensland set, with Katoa catching the footy on the full after Morgan shanked it down to the left corner of the field. In one of the sudden changes in possession that would define so much of this first half, Fifita now lost the footy during a combined tackle from McGuire and Gavin Cooper, leading to some big words between Fifi and Cooper during the subsequent scrum, as the frustrations started to mount for both sides.

By this stage, the first try was starting to feel like a distant prospect for both sides, even as it felt as if the first try would also define the next passage of the game. Following the Fifita-Cooper scrum, an error from Clifford gave the Sharks a fresh set thirty metres out from their line, as Johnson entered the spotlight, starting with a brilliant kick that initially looked as if he’d booted it too hard, onlyfor it to ricochet perfectly off the North Queensland defence, forcing Bowen to pop it into touch.

With Josh Dugan getting a penalty beside the posts following a slow peel from Jake Graville, the Sharks were really rolling. Yet while they decided to take the two, Johnson paused as if still awaiting a call from his coach, producing a weird, Lachlan-Lewis like break that allowed the Cowboys to get their defensive line together. They now cleaned up Fifita twice, as Cronulla rotated through a series of fairly average attack options, only for Johnson to time the ricochet perfectly once again, sending the footy up and through Clifford before Nene Macdonald was forced to ground it in goal.

This was the most promising attack from either side since the Cowboys’ two tryscoring opportunities in the first ten minutes, and for a moment the Sharks seemed to be burnishing their momentum on the next set, as Kurt Capewell, Matt Moylan and Josh Morris executed some rapid-fire play up their left edge. It all came to nothing, though, when Morris was defied by the slippery ball, coughing it up for the best single letoff of the night so far for North Queensland.

In keeping with the tenor of the game so far, Jordan Maclean now lost the footy just as quickly, gifting Cronulla what was effectively a third repeat set. Dugan got things going with a terrific offload to Katoa, who sent it back, via Johnson, to Jayden Brailey to straighten up the play at just the right moment. Finally, the Sharks had the accumulated possession and positional platform they needed, and the next tackle unfolded like a training run – a short ball from Fifita to Gallen, and then a harbor bridge offload from Gallen to Townsend, who got ahead of Scott and Maclean to reach out a hand to plant the Steeden on the line beneath the posts.

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Yet the Sharks fizzled again on the restart, following an awakward offload from Gallen and error in the play-the-ball from Dugan. Granville responsed with a deft grubber a metre out from the line, but Johnson cleaned it up effortlessly. You wouldn’t think, from Johnson’s confidence, that this would turn into the most heated moment of the first half, but some confusion around another lost ball from Moylan, and an offside penalty from McGuire, led to a fracas that necessitated a drink break, and some breathing-space, in these hot, humid and sticky conditions.

Following a ball strip from Scott at the start of the next set, Dugan elected to tap and go, but at the end of the tackle count Johnson’s ricochet was less favourable for Cronulla. Nevertheless, Matt Prior picked it up and kicked again, but the Cowboys had their defenders in place, and got things rolling once again. It was now Sosaia Feki’s turn to shine, as he made the first of two great takes in the face of the North Queensland kick option at the end of the following set, where he leapt in the air and outdid Macdonald to clean up a crossfield kick from Morgan.

Once again, Morris’ discomfort with the humid conditions led to a handling error, while a second slow peel from Fifita in five minutes got the Cows a penalty in front of the posts. They chose to tap and go, as the Sharks had before them, and actually got a repeat set, only for Feki to clean up the last option once again – this time a Clifford kick, rather than a Morgan kick, skidding along the ground, rather than hanging dangerously in the air.

The Cows now launched a barnstorming defensive effort, with half the team combining to drag Townsend back in goal, but it turned out to be a penalty after Hess was pinged for not being square at marker. Townsend didn’t get much time to celebrate his good luck, however, making the error that would lead to the first try for the home team – a lost ball early in the next set following a big tackle from McGuire

Townsend’s own response to the tackle was also a factor, and said something about the desperation seeping into the Cronulla players at this point in the game. Seeing McGuire launching himself toward him, Townsend leapt into the air and careened over Granville, who was coming in for a follow-up tackle, before almost landing head-first on the turf. Galvanised by that show of desperation, the Cows now proceeded with their best set of the night, thanks in part to a dazzling display of footwork from Asiata on the fourth tackle.

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Asiata’s dexterity laid the platform for the tryscoring sequence, which started with a quick play-the-ball from Granville to Cooper, and ended with a lightning-pass from Cooper back in to Kahu, who slammed through a Sharks defense that was still reconstituting itself after Asiata’s run. Kahu promptly converted his own try, and the Cows scored again moments later, with Asiata once again playing a critical role by straightening the play, and establishing the field position for his men to get the footy out to Martin on the right edge.

Once again, Feki was in place, but this time he was unable to clean up the bounce, which careened off at an unmanageable angle for the Cronulla defence, but sat up in just the right position for Martin to dance ahead and put it down. With Kahu missing this conversion, the Cowboys were at a 10-6 lead as both teams headed to half time. The Sharks must have received a pretty good spray from John Morris in the sheds, since they felt like a different team when they returned from the park, putting down five tries in twenty minutes that took them from a four point deficit to a 10-36 lead.

Johnson proved instrumental during this period, making as if to send a cut-out pass to Dugan a couple of minutes in, only to boot through a short ball for Briton Nikora to score his second try in the NRL. At first, it was called no try, and referred to the bunker, but the replay showed that the young second-rower had managed to withstand the defensive pressure from Martin, and got to ground just in front of the dead ball line, keeping his elbow off the turf before tumbling into touch.

It was the perfect way to demystify Martin’s kick chase at the end of the first stanza, since he looked positively sluggish in comparison to Nikora’s effort here. You could have made an argument that Nikora fumbled the footy ever so slightly before regathering it a foot above the ground, but this just made these four points feel even more precarious, and made the Sharks even hungrier to ensure that North Queensland didn’t get the next word on the scoreboard.

Townsend was the next to score, racking up a double following a linebreak from Brailey, who wove his way up through the ruck before popping the footy inside to his halfback, who easily outran Macdonald and Clifford to get the ball to ground. The biggest defensive gaffe came from Hess, however, who barely reached out his hands to stop Brailey’s massive burst, as if banking on the Cronulla hooker being halted further down the field.

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The next six points were bookended by Morris, who made up for his errors in the first half of the game with his most exhilarating passage of football – and his first try – since donning the Cronulla jersey. It started with Morris breaking through the line, getting through a pair of low tackles from Hampton and Martin, before demanding the full force of Morgan and Scott to bring him to ground.

Johnson followed up with some equally visionary play, collecting the footy within the Cowboys’ twenty, and heading to the right, before drifting back to the left, settling into that leisurely groove that can make him so dangerous with ball in hand. At just the right moment, he dropped the Steeden onto his right boot, threading it through the line, where Morris also got ahead of Martin to curve the ball into his possession and slam down four more points.

Once again, this was closer than it looked, with the bunker eventually rulling that Morris had just managed to exert downward pressure with his right wrist before the footy slipped out of the crook of his elbow. Once again, too, this just kept the Sharks hungry for any opportunity they could take. The next one came about fifteen minutes in, when Townsend scooped up a dropped ball by Hampton and made it all the way to the Cowboy’s thirty-metre line.

A strong run from Jack Williams at the end of the next tackle narrowed the dstance to five metres, while a twist-and-spin from Aaron Woods on the next got them even closer. Everything was in place, so it felt inevitable when a turnaround pass from Brailey sent Dugan over on the fourth, at the tail end of a hard diagonal run from Duges that allowed him to slice his way through Morgan, Cooper and Granville, in prime position for Johnson to boot through yet another two points.

Each of these tries had seemed more effortless and incredible than the last. The final note in this superb sequence was a second double for the Sharks, this time from Morris, as well as their simplest tryscoring moment. Scooping up the footy out of dummy-half on the left edge of the field, the ex-Bulldog simply put his head down and burrowed through the line, taking advantage of some momentary miscommunication between Hess and Martin to slam down four more points.

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Hess and Martin had been the main casualties of these last twenty minutes, since the Sharks had stormed past Martin twice, while Hess had been responsible for letting Brailey get through their line. There was something conclusive about seeing Morris dismantle them so seamlessly here – an appropriate end to arguably the best passage of tryscoring in 2019, with the possible exception of the Sea Eagles’ second half surge against the Roosters a couple of weeks ago.

In other words, the Sharks had more than won the game by this point, generating so much momentum that the Cows never had a chance of getting them. A short ball from Morgan sent Cooper across for a consolation try fourteen minutes out from the end, but it didn’t go anywhere, keeping North Queensland to sixteen points once Kahu had booted the extras. The Sharks would have put down a masterpiece if they’d stopped scoring then and there, but a final four points from Blayke Brailey two minutes out from the end cemented this as a game for the history books.

They’ll be looking for an equally big performance against the Eels next week, given the way Parramatta were stung by their first encounter with the Roosters after Blake Ferguson switched jerseys. Meanwhile, the Cows haven’t felt Johnathan Thurston’s absence quite so acutely in 2019 as this did in this match, and will be looking to regain some pride when they take on Canberra for another Townsville fixture.

About Billy Stevenson (751 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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