Cronulla have stamped themselves as genuine NRL premiership contenders with a gritty 30-18 win over North Queensland.
The Sharks fought off a late Cowboys comeback and move into equal fourth as a result of the Saturday night victory at Remondis Stadium, while the visitors blew a golden chance to jump into the outright competition lead.
Sharks skipper Paul Gallen could face scrutiny from the NRL after he was picked up by the on-field microphones telling the officials to “ref it evenly”.
After Matthew Wright crossed in the 73rd minute, Gallen remonstrated with referees Matt Cecchin and David Munro. Players and coaches face hefty fines for criticising referees in post-match media conferences.
With the result, Shane Flanagan’s side sit with fourth-placed South Sydney on 28 points but are fifth because of their inferior points differential.
After looking like they were cruising at 18-0 just after halftime, they had to resist a late Cowboys surge to record an eighth win from their past nine starts.
They looked to be doing it easy at halftime with their forwards taking advantage of the absence of State of Origin prop Matt Scott for the Cowboys, laying a solid platform for speed men Ricky Leutele and Jack Bird to grab tries.
When Michael Gordon raced 80 metres three minutes after the break, it looked to be the coup de grace.
However, as they have done so often this year, the Cowboys fought back.
Two quick tries to Antonio Winterstein and Kane Linnett gave them a sniff and Wright’s try in the 73rd minute gave them a chance to pull off an unlikely win.
But the Sharks gritted their teeth with Wade Graham crossing for a deserved four-pointer in the last minute to ice the game.