ROUND 15: North Queensland Cowboys v. Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks (QCB Stadium, 18/6/21, 24-26)

The Sharks probably didn’t exepect a field goal win over the Panthers last week, and they were probably just as surprised at the two-point difference when they only just triumphed over the Cows at QCB Stadium on Friday night. Last time they met at Netstrata in Round 4, Cronulla came away with a 48-10 drubbing, but North Queensland mounted a late comeback here, doubling their scoreline in the last seven minutes with the fastest and most exciting attack, only for a ludicrous sin bin for Reece Robson to effectively hand Cronulla the game.

Kyle Feldt took the kickoff, after missing last week’s game with a lingering post-Origin back injury, and Valentine Holmes was safe under the first kick, while the Cowboys got a restart on the same set, off a ruck error from Matt Moylan. Scott Drinkwater’s first kick was a dangerous grubber, but Will Kennedy did well to collect it in goal and swerve back in field to avoid a dropout, only for a massive North Queensland pack to drag Ronaldo Mulitalo back over the line on play two. Johnson went long with the kick, and the Cows had the first big field position.

Jason Taumalolo took his first short-range charge, into Toby Rudolf and Jayden Brailey, before Drinkwater reprised his grubber with a near-assist, booting a perfectly weighted ball into the left corner where Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow chased it down. In real time, it looked like the Hammer might have got the footy down as he tumbled into touch, but the replay showed he’d actually placed the tip of the Steeden on the dead ball line, giving Cronulla seven tackles.

This was a big let-off for the Sharkies, and Rudolf capitalised with barnstorming metres up the middle, but Will Chambers couldn’t match Drinkwater with the boot, mistiming the kick for a pretty easy pick-up from Tom Dearden. Murray Taulagi was safe under Johnson’s next bomb, and was unlucky not to get a penalty after being (just) tackled in the air, while Taumalolo lost a Jordan McLean pass into Brailey a few plays later, setting up Cronulla for the opening try.

Rudolf, Siosifa Talakai and Aaron Woods got them inside the red zone, before Talakai bumped off Taumalolo to get the Sharks three metres out from the North Queensland line. Johnson delivered the best grubber so far a play later, and Connor Tracey read the bounce beautifully, collecting it on his chest for the first try of the night. Johnson also converted from the side, after only making it 3/5 last week against the Panthers, and so the Sharkies were six ahead, while their half was keeping his head held high after learning he was off contract this week.

Feldt sent the kickoff so far on the full that Kennedy only had to reach a boot back over the dead ball line to get his men an augmented restart. The Sharks got six again on the first tackle, so they were inside the ten with a full set – but only needed one play, as Woods twisted and spun through Reece Robson to prove that being off contract didn’t faze him either. Full credit to Talakai, too, for the monster run that cleared up position for Woodsy’s superb attack. Johnson added another conversion, and the Sharks were now close to a point per minute.  

It felt like an age since the Cowboys had touched the ball when Holmes collected Johnson’s bomb at the end of the next restart. They got a penalty on their second play, when Briton Nikora stripped the footy from Taulagi with three in the tackle, as Dearden broke through the line on the next second play, dancing over a late ankle tap from Talakai to cross over untouched. Again, this depended on a terrific preceding run, from Drinkwater, who swerved across field and got on the outside of Rudolf to clear up space for his newly arrived halfback.

Whereas Johnson and Woodsy showed they could still score on the way out, Dearden had proved he could score as a new member of the team. Holmes added the conversion, and we were back to a six point game, while the Cowboys got six again, again on the second tackle, off a ruck error from Brailey. Taumaolo poked his nose through the line on the penultimate play, and Drinkwater reprised his opening grubber, as Kennedy again (just) brought it back into the field of play. This time, however, Mulitalo wasn’t going to be dragged back in goal.

The Cowboys got a restart at the end of their next set but the Hammer had to kick on the sideline, where he was trapped by two defenders. Moylan took it, and shut down this glimpse of further field position for North Queensland, although Taulagi was sharp beating Nikora to Johnson’s next kick. Cronulla got the next bout of possession when Hess lazily swung an arm into Kennedy’s face, and Tabuai-Fidow headed off for an HIA after copping the right elbow of Tracey, who had busted through his tackle to make a good four or five post-contact metres.

Talakai followed with more metres after contact, laying the platform for Moylan to break up the line on the left, dance over a Hess ankle tap, and cross over the chalk, where Holmes and Javid Bowen combined for the best possible North Queensland outcome – not only halting Moylan in his tracks, and getting beneath the ball, but forcing a knock-on as he tumbled to ground. Taulagi got Drinkwater’s next kick back, after it ricocheted off Jake Granville, but he was way offside – and Mitchell Dunn took out his team’s frustration with a grapple on Woods.

Cronulla opted to take the two – a sign of respect to the Cowboys – and started to get creative on their next set, from an eccentric Woods tap-back to a flick-pass from Jesse Ramien on the ground out to Tracey on the right wing. They built more momentum when Feldt fumbled Johnson’s kick, Chambers scooped it up and offloaded to Mulitalo, who was brought to ground five metres out, but not without the Sharks getting six again. Yet the next set was average, concluding with Nikora knocking on in goal, gifting the Cowboys a seven tackle letoff.

By contrast, the Cows consolidated rapidly, as Burr broke through the line, brushing off Brailey, and making his way to the chalk, where he was just held up by Kennedy. His speed was too much for the Sharks, however, lingering into the next play, when Dearden fed a fast pass for Francis Molo to smash through Kennedy and Aiden Tolman for his first try of the season. Cronulla should have scored off their repeat set at the other end of the field, so this was a dramatic shift in momentum, especially once Holmes added the kick to make it 12-14.

Still, the Cowboys didn’t have the best restart, forcing Drinkwater to drive it over the sideline on the fourth play. The Sharks had to regather immediately here, and Talakai and Chambers laid the platform, as news came back from the sheds that the Hammer had failed his HIA, forcing Granville to remain in the centres for a David-and-Goliath contest with Ramien. He showed his mettle at the end of the next North Queensland set, with the toughest chase so far, storming down for massive contact as Tracey cleaned up a Drinkwater kick on the wing.

The game hung in the balance for the last five minutes before half time, as both teams searched for the try that would give them the edge when they returned from the break. Two sets later, the Sharks spread it left on the first tackle, and while it didn’t pay dividends here, this enterprising play helped them elasticise into another try before the siren blew out. First, however, they got a denied try, when Ramien and Braydon Trindall combined to lift Holmes on the first tackle, rattling the footy free for Trindall to scoop it up and slam over the chalk.

No sooner had Trindall been denied than the Sharks scored, out of the subsequent scrum, thanks to a wide ball from Johnson and some sublime footwork from Kennedy, who pivoted from left to right to get around McLean and shift the footy out to the wing for the easiest try of Mulitalo’s career – a tribute to how much Kennedy had improved during his recent games for Cronulla. Johnson just slid it through the posts, and the Sharks were 12-20 at the break.

Molo took two carries on the first set back, on the first and fifth tackles, and Granville continued his campaign against Tracey with another huge chase under Drinkwater’s kick. Bowen coughed it up midway through the next Cowboys set but the Sharks didn’t do much with the field position, despite Johnson shifting it from side to side, opening up opportunities for Ramien on the right and Moylan on the left. By the last play, Johnson had also decelerated, mistiming the kick for Taulagi to catch it on the full, before Jack Williams conceded a restart.

This shift in momentum provided North Queensland with the first real surge of the second half, as Drinkwater poked his nose through the line on the left, where he was only just stopped by Nikora, and Trindall came up with an even more scrambling defensive effort to prevent Holmes popping over from dummy half a tackle later. Like the Sharkies, though, the Cows wilted on the last, as Dearden spread it right to Drinkwater without either half getting a kick.

Trindall took the next kick, a spiralling bomb that offered the most dangerous bounce so far, but Holmes was lucky with the angle, catching it straight on the chest. Yet the game was starting to fragment, as Bowen broke through tackles from Moylan and Chambers – not so much on the strength of his run as the disorganisation of the Cronulla defence – before Shane Wright lost the footy as he was pushing up outside Drinkwater to receive a linebreak assist.

Braden Hamlin-Uele injected some fresh blood into the Cronulla forward pack a moment later, as both sides searched for the rhythm needed to restore this second stanza of football. Feldt galvanised his men with a hit on Chambers, Queenslander on Queenslander, Granville responded with a big run up the middle on the next set, and the Cowboys got the chance they needed when Mulitalo made an unforced error collecting the kick without a defender in sight.

This was the moment for North Queensland, who had the scrum at the ten. Robson drove it down the middle on the first play, Taumalolo stood in the tackle for a good seven seconds on the second, and Dearden clearly knocked on a play later. The set continued but the Sharks got justice when Burr offload out of a Tolman-Johnson tackle to Robson, who knocked it on, inducing the Cowboys to send up one of the most perplexing Captain’s Challenges this year.

Ramien responded with a good chase and hit on Taulagi beneath the next high ball, and Chambers followed suit, combining with Mulitalo to drive Bowen back a few metres on tackle four. In keeping with the growing drabness of the second half, however, Johnson’s next kick ricocheted off the defence, while Holmes made a strong run and tempted a dangerous hit from Nikora a play later, only for Kennedy to leap several metres over the sideline to recover Holmes’ penalty kick – the desperation play Cronulla needed to recover their opening mojo.

Taumalolo tried to steady the North Queensland ship with a deft offload to Hess midway through the next set, but again the Cows were caught on the last before their halves could get to a kick. Big J.T. got some joy again by forcing a Woods forward pass, and yet even his defence couldn’t compare to a monster effort, at the end of the next set, from Mulitalo, who lifted Bowen, with the ball, from the waist, and dumped him to ground for another dour Cowboys conclusion. Like Kennedy, he’d given the Sharkies a big one-man play to rally around.

The question, on the cusp of the final quarter, was whether Cronulla would be able to congeal around these enterprising individual efforts, since Taumalolo responded to Mulitalo with a damaging low shot on Moylan beneath the next high ball, and Drinkwater trapped Tracey in the left corner with one of his best kicks of this second stanza. Johnson’s next kick was nothing special, a low driving effort for field position that Holmes scooped up on the second bounce, before the Sharks left Granville to take an oblique Drinkwater bomb as they cleaned him up.

If anything, Kennedy and Mulitalo’s big plays had clarified the general drabness of Cronulla since the break. The Sharkies needed some luck, and they got it when a Johnson 40/20 attempt ricocheted off Drinkwater and back to Rudolf for a repeat set. The next three plays were a war of attrition, a short-side raid in slow motion, as Moylan fed it to Teig Wilton on the first, Kennedy dummied to Moylan and tumbled into a Robson ankle tap on the second, and Moylan opted for a short cut-out assist for Chambers to amble past Dearden and score.

Chambers’ first points as a Shark marked the last Cronulla try of the game, as Johnson added the sideline conversion and the Cows ground in for a comeback that almost matched Shaun’s golden point win over the Panthers last week. The comeback started immediately too, as Holmes retrieved the footy off a short kickoff and almost made his way to the line, outshining even Kennedy and Mulitalo’s big one-man plays with the fastest acceleration since the break.

Even if Feldt put a knee on the line a tackle later, this was still promising stuff from the Cows – and Dearden tried to capitalise with a big run up the right on play four of the next set. It wasn’t quite enough then and there, and nor was his bomb on the following set, which Kennedy collected clean despite the crowd getting behind their team with each fresh carry now. Yet little by little, the Sharks were starting to wane, as evinced in Johnson’s decision to send his next kick over the sideline, and get his men some breathing-space with eight to go.

This brief concession was the chance the Cows needed, as Wright got them rolling with an offload to Taumalolo, and Dearden now came up with the right play, dancing across the defence, assessing his options, and feeding the footy out to the right for a short side sweep. Bowen sent it on to Feldt, who danced away from Mulitalo right on the line, slid past Moylan and slammed into a low tackle from Kennedy, eventually using the Cronulla fullback as a pivot, as he reached out his right hand to ground the footy with Rudolf and Chambers falling on top.

This was the clutchiest try of the night – the footy looked short in real-time, and came loose immediately after. Yet the replay showed that Holmes had just made contact with the chalk, making this the lowest defensive moment for Chambers, who had clean missed his target before returning with Rudolf for a second effort. Holmes added a superb sideline conversion, Ramien took out his team’s irritation with a high shot on Holmes during the restart, and Feldt got a double, three plays later, this time from dummy half, after Drinkwater nearly scored.

This was a superb consolidation sequence for the Cowboys, as Drinkwater channelled both Holmes’ barnstorming run off the Sharks’ aborted restart, and Dearden’s vision from the halves on the last try. He palmed off Wilton, danced over a second ankle tap from Wilton, and slammed through Kennedy and Chambers right on the line, continuing his speed into the fastest play-the-ball of the night. Holmes added the extras, and  we were back to a two point game, begging the question of whether Holmes would now attempt a 40-metre field goal.

Yet the Cowboys looked more intent on four points on the restart, as Taumalolo beat Rudolf and Tolman for his biggest run of the night down the middle. Robson took on the line on the last play, but was held up, creating an adrenalin overload that drove him to go low and hard on Tolman a tackle later. The ex-Bulldog was taken off the park for an HIA, bringing Williams back on for the final three minutes, while Robson was put on report and sent to the bin for his troubles, even though he’d gone low, only getting Tolman “high” because he went lower.

This was the final turning-point of the match, paving the way for a pair of Cronulla linebreaks, from Johnson and Kennedy, that bookended a failed two-point field goal attempt from Holmes. After doubling their score in the last seven minutes, in arguably the best sequence of the match, this was a pretty frustrating end for the Cows, so they’ll be looking to come back big against the Knights in two weeks time, while the Sharkies will be keen for a more consistent game, and a much bigger win margin, when they meet the Broncos at Suncorp.

About Billy Stevenson (692 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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