The Sharks were missing 500 games of experience in their spine when they hosted the Cowboys on Saturday night, with Matt Moylan, Shaun Johnson and Chad Townsend all off the park. Connor Tracey was playing his twelfth match, but only his third start in the no. 6 jersey, while Braydon Trindall was standing in at halfback for his third NRL appearance, and would go on to steal the show with a pivotal match in his early career.
On the other side of the Steeden, the Cows also ended up with a relatively inexperienced halves combo after Michael Morgan was taken from the field early in the match, while Val Holmes was back after six weeks on the sideline to take on his former club, albeit with Scott Drinkwater still custodian at fullback for the time being. The Cows were looking to break an eight game losing streak, while Cronulla needed to draw heavily on their heaviest bench in some time – Rudolf, Talakai, Hunt and Fifita.
Braden Hamlin-Uele got the Sharks rolling with fifteen metres on the first run, and Trindall did well with his first kick, before Drinkwater lost the footy on his first carry, while twisting into a combined tackle from Briton Nikora and Aaron Woods. Cronulla had a repeat set on their first set, as Scott Sorensen collected the Steeden after losing his footing on play two, and Jesse Ramien managed an offload on the next play, only for Ronaldo Mulitalo to follow Drinkwater with a knock-on while trying to collect it.
The Cows now got their first real touch of the footy with a scrum feed at the ten, as Michael Morgan ended with a deft bomb. Drinkwater caught it on the full, taking on the right edge, where Mulitalo skittled him – but the call went Cronulla’s way. Four plays later, Drinkwater completed his right-side raid with a harbour-bridge ball for Kyle Feldt, who leaped up to collect it on the full, and leisurely curved around to cross untouched, before Holmes added his first conversion from the sideline since Round 4.
Jordan McLean took the first tackle of the restart, and while he made some headway, the Sharkies did well to drag Josh McGuire back over the ten. McLean took another carry on the next tackle, juggling the Steeden in the air but somehow recovering it, before Drinkwater was forced to kick from within the forty. Kennedy responded with the best return so far, breaking through Holmes and putting down twenty metres to get Ramien the second play-the-ball right where Drinkwater had booted it through.
Nikora had arguably the best close-range run so far on play three, twisting out of a couple of Cowboys and nearly making it to the right goal post, while forcing the first penalty of the night – offside from Daejarn Asi. Hamlin-Uele changed his angle to follow in Nikora’s footsteps a moment later, and Jesse Ramien muscled his way to the chalk, where Trindall ripped the footy out of his hand and planted it down himself, only to run behind Scott Sorensen and deny Coen Hess the defensive chance in the process.
This was a unique play – a halfback stealing the Steeden off his own man, or an unintentional offload, depending how you look at it – so it was a pity that it was called back for a pretty technical obstruction. The Cows didn’t make much of the next set, however, as a frustrated offload from Connelly Lemuelu, and a knock-on from Hess, gave way to a neat collect for Kennedy, followed by the first restart of the evening when Blayke Brailey was pinged for a ruck infringement early in the tackle count.
Brailey got some closure pretty quickly though, coming up with a spectacular bounce on the last that forced a sublime double save from Holmes – first, reaching out his left palm to knock the Steeden backwards a millisecond before Trindall could reach it, and then getting it down on his second go, in a master class of defensive commitment that cemented his return to the North Queensland team, and denied Trindall another try.
With two almost-tries behind them, the Sharkies – and Trindall – had to consolidate immediately to avoid losing momentum. That’s just what they did on play one of the dropout, which felt more like a play directly out of the scrum, as Trindall collected the ball from Brailey, and came up with a perfect assist for Nikora, who danced off the right boot and broke through line for a clean, crisp, clinical four-pointer. Trindall had no issue with adding the extras, as the sky turned deep purple over Jubilee Oval.
North Queensland got a big blow when Morgan was led off the park a moment later, but they didn’t have time to really process it, since Cronulla came up with one of their most aggressive sets so far on the restart, culminating with a huge head collision between Ramien and Drinkwater as they competed for the kick in the corner. In the end, the knock-on came from Ramien, who left the park for an HIA as Siosifa Talakai came off the bench earlier than expected, and the Sharks got set to defend again.
Talakai made an impact immediately, barging his way up the middle for twenty metres on his first carry – and Josh Dugan followed suit, carving up the left edge like a frontrower, before Tracey’s kick almost defied Drinkwater, who copped an ankle injury in the process, but managed to run it out. Mitch Dunn showed he could rival Tracey’s bomb on the followed set, but it was tapped back to Woodsy, who got the Sharks rolling once again, only for Wade Graham to botch a clutch grubber on the left edge.
Meanwhile, news came back from the sheds that Morgan had sustained a calf injury, and wouldn’t be returning, meaning the Cows were now also fielding a relatively inexperienced halves combo. They actually had one of their best sets so far as the second quarter arrived, thanks in part to a ruck error from Hamlin-Uele, but it came apart with a handling mistake from Lemuelu, and a dangerous hit from McGuire that set up a period of sustained Cronulla field position, and then two successive tries.
Both came off Trindall, who got a left sweep going the first time around to set up Kennedy for a sublime assist – the nexus between a bullet ball and harbour bridge ball that got Sione Katoa on the outside of Holmes. Katoa still had to draw on his ballet playbook to get the footy to ground, right down to the little pivot just before he leaped in the air and shifted the Steeden to his left hand, executing a superb one-palmed putdown as Drinkwater cruised in to try and bump him into touch.
Trindall’s angle was good, but the footy curved away from the posts at the last minute, although Brailey made up for it with a confident 40/20 on the restart, while Trindall almost sent Nikora through the line for a second time. Brailey nearly stormed over out of dummy half, but the Cowboys scrambled their defence to contain him, while Dunn only just made it to the Steeden after Trindall careened it off the left padding on the last – a pair of clutch plays that drained the Cowboys’ tank over these critical minutes.
The next sequence was all the big men, as Hunt took the first tackle, and Woods ran deep into the line, cleaning up space for Hamlin-Uele to make good on all his short-range surges this evening. So fast and suddenly did he move that he only needed to wrestle through a last-ditch Asi tackle to slam the Steeden down right on the dead ball line. This time Trindall added the extras with ease, and so the Sharkies were ten ahead with ten minutes to go, and kept it that way right down to the stroke of half time.
Once again, Drinkwater started with an error, conceding the first penalty back from the break with a swinging arm on Kennedy under the opening high ball. Cronulla made the most of it, from a Rudolf dummy-and-run, to a Brailey surge, and then a spectacular flick offload from Trindall, with Drinkwater around his waist, for Nikora to break through the line and assist Talakai, who became the next big man to cross over for Cronulla. Trindall converted again, and so the Sharks were now at a 22-6 lead.
They lost a bit of momentum early in the restart, when Brailey didn’t take advantage of a big burst of space, but the young hooker made up for it by collecting a Hunt offload on the full, before a series of rapid play-the-balls got Trindall in space for a spiraling bomb that Holmes had to steel himself to contain. The Cows didn’t do as well under the next high ball, however, as Mulitalo outleaped them, Rudolf offloaded on the right edge, and Trindall booted it to the left, where the most unlikely Shark collected it.
Josh Dugan was on the brink of coming off the field with a leg injury, and yet he still managed to collect the footy here, so it was agonising when he was called offside, after being just in front of the play-the-ball a moment before. It was the third near-try of the match for Cronulla, and the second time they were denied a truly spectacular play, after Trindall’s eccentric steal in the opening quarter. This had to be a consolidation moment for the Cows, but instead Hunt promptly forced a knock-on from Drinkwater.
This hadn’t been a game of big hits, so Hunt’s effort stood out, and yet the Cows got the ball back two tackles late, when Mulitalo reached out his arm for what initially looked like an offload, but for some reason tried to play the ball while the tackle from Corey Jensen and John Asiata was still in motion. This time North Queensland did better, especially since Fifita was deemed to have played at Drinkwater’s kick – a lucky call – but Asiata knocked on, and got done for crowding three Cronulla tackles later.
The Sharks now had their best field position since Dugan crossed over, spreading the ball wide and showing how much better they could expand and elasticize. Fifita had a rare forward run on the third, having spent most of the match moving crossfield, and Trindall booted it over the sideline on the last, giving his men some breathing-space – the first in a series of underwhelming grubbers over the next few minutes, which were probably the low point in an otherwise stunning outing from the rookie halfback.
Feldt took a good run on the first play, and got his men some momentum, especially once Hunt was pinged for a dangerous tackle on play two – and Dunn’s penalty kick just cleared the chalk. A no-look pass from Drinkwater to Gilbert followed, and the Cows started to accelerate right, where Jake Granville, fresh on the field, abruptly started a sweep to the other side, as if to mirror Cronulla’s flexibility on the last set. Yet Mulitalo had no problem catching Holmes’ bomb in goal to get his men seven more.
Mulitalo was clearly pumped by this play, roaring out to the home crowd as Hess tried to contain him with a pretty poor crusher tackle – prolonged contact, two movements – as the Sharkies settled into one of their best grooves of the second stanza. Trindall’s last kick was another average grubber that O’Neill was able to secure fairly easily after it ricocheted off his chest, but Cronulla only had to withstand three North Queensland tackles before Lemuelu passed the Steeden to nobody, and so sent it over the sideline.
Feldt was doing a good job as unofficial Cowboys custodian, sliding in to try and scoop up the footy, but slipping just as he came in to make contact, following the footy into touch. Meanwhile, Tracey almost broke through the line on his next carry, Mulitalo drew in three big men on the fourth, and Trindall came up with a slightly better grubber, although O’Neill contained it once again. All Cronulla needed was a great final play, and it took them about eight more minutes of consolidation to get there.
This was a perfect closing try – a clean, crisp, passage of play up the middle to complement the Sharkies’ short-range and side efforts. It started with a superb trio of passes out of dummy half – Woods as first receiver, then Trindall, who popped it back inside for Nikora to abruptly change the direction of play and put Tracey through the line at the thirty. The young five-eighth had been raring for a big run all night, and got it here, making it to the five before he came down beneath a Corey Jensen tackle.
Nevertheless, he added strength to speed, relying on momentum, and keeping his right elbow off the ground, to reach over Jensen’s legs and through a maelstrom of cascading Cowboys defenders to get the footy down right on the line. It was a sterling effort in slow motion, a perfect pinnacle to a stellar night of Cronulla football, and redolent of some of Daly Cherry-Evans’ synergies of speed and strength over the year, putting the Sharks 28-6 as Trindall booted through his last conversion of the night.
By this stage, North Queensland needed an error to score, and got it from Brailey, sweeping right out of the final scrum, when Feldt – who else – got them a consolation try three minutes out from the end. At first it looked like the ball might have slipped out of his hands, but the replay showed that he’d applied enough downward pressure. The Cowboys had missed Holmes’ consistency with the boot, and he made it two from two here, popping through the last points of the night with two minutes on the clock.
Feldt can have such a galvanising impact on his team mates that the Cows might have effected a comeback here with another twenty minutes, but at this stage there was no denying the Cronulla landslide. They’ll be looking to draw on their home ground advantage, then, when they host the Dragons in Townsville next week, while the Sharks should feel pumped after such an impressive win without Johnson, Townsend or Moylan on the park – and fired up to take on Newcastle next Friday night.