Cronulla have advanced to the NRL grand final with a 32-20 demolition of a listless North Queensland at Allianz Stadium.
The result sent the 36,717-strong crowd into raptures on Friday night as the Sharks moved a step closer to claiming their first title in their 50-year history and ended the Cowboys’ hopes of winning back-to-back premierships.
They will meet the winner of Saturday’s clash between Canberra and Melbourne in Sunday week’s grand final at ANZ Stadium.
The Cowboys gave themselves a sniff of hope when fullback Lachlan Coote, who otherwise had a forgettable night and was again troubled under the high ball, crossed for a soft try four minutes after halftime to make it 14-6.
However, the Sharks picked themselves up off the canvas to advance to their fourth grand final – following their appearances in 1973, 1978 and the Super League decider in 1997.
The Cowboys were blown off the park by a Sharks first-half blitz. Looking fatigued after their 90-minute epic against Brisbane last week, they crumbled under a mountain of unforced errors.
When Chad Townsend crossed to make it 14-0 at the break, the Sharks had completed twice as many sets as the Cowboys (16/20 to 8/12), run for twice as many metres (791 to 390), and been tackled in their opposition’s red zone 23 times compared to North Queensland’s eight.
Townsend bounced back from his shocker against Canberra a fortnight ago when he was hooked by coach Shane Flanagan, scoring one try, going close on another occasion and setting up another.
The Sharks twice managed to get over the line, through Andrew Fifita and Townsend, but were denied by the video referees before they finally converted their weight of possession into points via a James Maloney penalty goal in the 17th minute.
And when they found space on the left side, Sosaia Feki crossed in the corner before a botched Kyle Feldt dropout gifted Maloney another two points.
Townsend’s 35th-minute four-pointer had big question marks on it, with the last pass from Maloney appearing to be forward, however referee Gerard Sutton was in line with the play.
Coote’s try shortly after halftime seemingly sparked the Sharks back to life as they piled on three tries in 14 minutes via Luke Lewis and a Maloney double.
The Cowboys scored three tries in the final 10 minutes via a Feldt double and Cohen Hess but it was of little consolation.