The Sharks had the first big biosecurity scare going into Saturday night’s game with the Cowboys, as six players registered elevated temperatures when they got off the plane in Townsville, including Matt Moylan. It must have just been the shift from Sydney winter to North Queensland heat, however, since they were all cleared by the time the game started. On the other side of the Steeden, the Cowboys were without Jason Taumalolo, who had made a massive impact in their game against the Titans the week before, but they still enjoyed an almost unbroken string of possession for the first ten minutes, starting with Blayke Brailey conceding the first penalty (offside) of the night halfway through their opening set. Jesse Ramien made the first big tackle of the match to prevent Scott Drinkwater channeling Taumalolo by almost sending Gavin Cooper across in the left corner, but Matt Moylan lost the footy a play later, giving North Queensland a full set in their own half.
Once more the Cows headed left, and this time Drinkwater took on the line himself, before Jake Granville rapidly changed the direction of play, and Jake Clifford sent through a dropout-making grubber, only for the Steeden to bounce off the post and so enable Cronulla to remain in the field of play. Wade Graham got the next kick away, but Toby Rudolf leaked another penalty, for an illegal strip on Jordan Maclean, late in the next tackle count, as the Cowboys started to consolidate. Drinkwater double pumped and sent a wide ball over to Ben Hampton, forcing Johnson and Briton Nikora to make a big tackle on the left edge, before Granville went left once again – far enough left for Clifford’s kick to avoid the uprights and gain the dropout he’d been searching for the first time around. Johnson went long with the kick, and Maclean couldn’t get to the forty, but Francis Molo build up speed with a deft offload to Drinkwater that got Holmes to the left corner.Embed from Getty Images
Aaron Woods now followed Brailey with an offside penalty, right in front of the posts, but the Cowboys chose to tap and go, rather than waste all this field position on two points. They got a set restart a tackle later, and swept from right to left, getting in place for a try when Josh McGuire made their first error, coughing up the footy under big pressure from Moylan. This was an enormous defensive achievement for Cronulla, whose eventual win probably had a lot to do with the momentum and stamina of this opening sequence, which sustained their confidence over the rest of the match, despite North Queensland’s home advantage. They got their own burst of field position immediately, as Granville crowded in early in the Cronulla tackle count, and Brailey ended the set with a grubber between the posts that Mitchell Dunn could and should have left to tumble in touch, but instead sent over the line for the next dropout.
Cronulla now had their first repeat set, and while Molo started with a big hit on Rudolf, and Moylan kicked too hard on the last, Kyle Feldt was penalised for an escort on Josh Dugan, gifting the visitors a fresh set of six, albeit not the penalty try or sin bin the Sharks wanted. Johnson opted for a tricky penalty kick from the left sideline, and the footy ricocheted off the right post, bouncing at an oblique angle, and sitting up perfectly for Johnson, who had run back inside to gather it. This would have been one of the most incredible tries of the year if the Cronulla halfback had regathered possession, since he was right in front of the posts with nobody ahead of him, but Dunn made up for his bad call in goal by taking the Steeden instead, paving the way for a renewed period of North Queensland defence that crystallised around two good moves from Holmes.Embed from Getty Images
First, Holmes showed his maturity and experience by letting a long ball bounce to avoid a dropout, and then he brought the ball half a metre back into the field of play next time Cronulla aimed for a repeat set, tempting a high tackle from William Kennedy in the process. However, the Sharks capitalised immediately when Drinkwater put down a pass from Granville, as Brailey and Jack Williams accelerated into their best set with a pair of quick play-the-balls, before Kennedy encountered Clifford five metres out from the line on the right edge. He went to offload, but instead dropped the ball, which fortuitously rolled backward off his boot, remaining live for Ramien to storm in, scoop it up, and slam down the first try of the match. This was like watching the Sharks recorrecting in real time after their opening ten minutes – by this time they were dominating field position – giving them a six point lead after Johnson slotted through his first two points of the game.
The Cows didn’t take long to score in turn, off the worst defence so far for the Sharks. They were three on three on the right edge, but Feldt was still able to collect a bullet pass from Clifford, sneak along the sideline, and place it down for the softest try of the game, as Moylan, Graham and Sione Katoa all watched on inside the field. This was a good way for Feldt to get closure after his escort on Dugan, levelling the score when Holmes booted through an absolutely iconic conversion from the sideline that was all the more spectacular for the empty, cavernous North Queensland stadium in the background. Once again, though, an error quickly changed the rhythm of try-scoring – this time a dropped ball from Shane Wright on the restart. The Sharks scored then and there, thanks to a superb kick from Johnson, who sent the footy through the defence from twenty metres out, in a rejoinder to Holmes’ beautiful effort with the boot from the sideline.Embed from Getty Images
Hampton and Mulitalo converged on the ball, but the Cronulla winger got there first, for the Sharkies’ second try, and yet Williams followed Wright by dropping the ball cold just when his team needed to be consolidating. The game was briefly paused when John Asiata twisted his ankle – he was all right for the moment – and then the Sharks got a bit of fresh blood with Siosifa Talakai, back in first grade for the first time in three years, and Tom Gilbert, who was on debut, and whose parents had been given a special pass to watch his opening game from the stands. Drinkwater now leaked two successive penalties, for an offside error and an early tackle, and the Sharks looked set to score. Hamlin-Uele was held up a metre out on the left edge, before Mulitalo sent an offload out for Ramien to cross over, only for the try to be denied by the Bunker due to an obstruction from Nikora on Drinkwater.
Both Ramien and Mulitalo would get their chance in the second half, but for the moment things fizzled further for the Sharks when Johnson went for a field goal in the last minute and swerved the Steeden away to the right of the posts. Cronulla now wasted their Captain’s Challenge to contest whether the footy had come off the Cowboys, hoping for a dropout – a bizarre decision, since the replay showed that Johnson’s kick had bounced in goal without coming anywhere near a North Queensland player. The Sharks continued to sink after the break, when a Drinkwater kick from the thirty bounced back obliquely in the left corner, getting away from Kennedy, and leaving time for O’Neill to collect it, bust through the tackle from the Cronulla fullback, and dive over the try line, narrowing the score to two after Holmes missed the sideline conversion. Yet the Cows continued the pattern of wasting the restart, as the Sharks got the ball back after a risky offload from Marsters on the fourth, and then received two six again calls in rapid succession.Embed from Getty Images
The Sharkies now tried to set up a tryscoring combination in the left corner, and then made their best right raid of the night – a series of elegant passes that saw the Steeden move through Moylan, Graham and Brailey, before Johnson sent a soaring ball across to Ramien, who ran into the line and fended off Hampton and Drinkwater, leaving just enough room for Mulitalo to cross over in the corner for his second career double. Full credit has to fo to Mulitalo for the putdown too, since he managed to contort his body so that both boots were in the field of play while he got the footy down with his right hand, before Hampton finally dragged him into touch. Johnson missed the sideline kick, but the Sharks had still widened the margin as rapidly as North Queensland had narrowed it – and yet they also lost the momentum of a decent restart, as Nikora coughed up footy on the very first play. History repeated itself as the Cowboys now got a six again call, before forcing a repeat set on the third play, when a Drinkwater kick trapped Holmes in goal, only for the North Queensland fullback to be called offside.
To avoid a penalty kick, the Cowboys made their first Captain’s Challenge – and this was the first time the Challenge has successfully been used to contest an offside call, a pretty amazing outcome given that this decision seemed almost as clear-cut as the contact that Cronulla were trying to contest before the break. The Cows now had the dropout, and got a bit more field position after a strip from Graham on the first tackle, but it all came to nothing when Gilbert coughed up the footy on the next play, as the error tally started to soar. Scott Sorenson was the next to make a mistake, but the critical error came a set later, when a wide pass from Drinkwater ricocheted off O’Neill on its way to the left wing. Hampton just managed to gather the footy, but lost it just as quickly under an inspired tackle from Mulitalo. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and Johnson now seized his opportunity, scooping up the Steeden and sailing down the sideline to the forty, where he dummied and shot it back inside for Ramien to jump over a low tackle from Maclean and storm down the park for another four points.Embed from Getty Images
Johnson added the conversion to bring the Sharkies to 22-10, and for the first time in a while, his men seemed certain to consolidate and capitalise on a try, with Ramien making a bone-rattling tackle on O’Neill a set later, clearly high on adrenaline from his best game in weeks. That made it even more dramatic when Feldt gathered up a weak dribble from Katoa to storm down his right edge much as Johnson and Ramien had before him, curving around to score behind the posts with no serious threat from the Cronulla defence. This time Holmes added the extras to make it a six point game once again, but the Sharkies came back just as quickly, at the end of a fairly standard set that nevertheless closed out with a strong play – Mulitalo leaping above Hampton to tap back a Johnson kick in the right corner. The bounce worked perfectly for Nikora, who only had to briefly dummy left to clear space for another four points for Cronulla.
The Sharks had scored within five minutes of all three North Queensland tries, so it felt like we might be in for an avalanche of late points if the home team managed to score again here – and they got their last big chance when Marsters caught a Drinkwater kick with sixteen on the clock. Henry Perenara called it a try, but sent it upstairs for the Bunker to examine the contest in the air. They deemed that Marsters had got the ball down, but that Hampton had knocked it on before he did – a complicated sequence in slow motion, since the Steeden struck Marsters squarely on the chest before making contact with Hampton, who nevertheless knocked it forward before Marsters was able to properly secure it. Even though the Sharks were only ten points ahead, they lost a bit of steam without needing to catch up to another North Queensland try, but this was still a great bounce back after their loss to the Tigers last week. They’ll be looking for a similar energy, and more consistency with sets after tries, when they take on a luckless Dragons outfit next Sunday, while the Cows will be hoping to play the Warriors from this week, rather than the Warriors from the week before.