The Sharks have accounted for a plucky Cowboys outfit to eventually prevail 28-16, and maintained their quest for a top 4 finish. In seeing off the challenge of the Cows, the Sharkies overcame multiple injuries to key players, and were inspired by a fired up Andrew Fifita, as they capitalised on having the advantage of an additional man for the remaining five minutes.
For the Cowboys, the absence of key forward proved telling, as they find themselves back at the bottom of the ladder. It wasn’t quite the Sydney farewell that Johnathan Thurston was hoping for in his final match in the nation’s largest city, and they face a do or die match next week against fellow strugglers, the Eels in Townsville. Here are five things we learned from the match:
1 Sharks remain in touch with the top four
Prior to this match, the Sharks were coming off an impressive gritty win over the Storm in Melbourne. Naturally, they were keen to consolidate on that win with another victory here, especially with an opportunity to stay in touch with the top four. However, this match against the Cowboys was a danger match for the Sharks, as they have struggled against lower ranked teams this season, and the Cows would be incredibly determined to shake off the wooden spoon.
The Sharkies opened the scoring in the 1st half through a Luke Lewis try. However, the Cowboys would strike back almost immediately through a converted try to Coen Hess. Johnathan Thurston would miss the conversion attempt, but would level the scores with a penalty goal just before the break, to send the sides all-square at the interval. The Sharks would hit the lead again in the 43rd minute through a Chad Townsend try, but the Cowboys would again draw level through a try to Jordan McLean. Andrew Fifita would ensure the Sharks had the lead once more, but Gavin Cooper would ensure the Cowboys remained in touch. With the Sharkies leading 18-16, Cowboys lock forward John Asiata would be sent to the sin bin for a professional foul with 5 minutes remaining. That proved vital, as the Sharks scored a further two tries, to eventually seal the points.
With the Panthers losing their earlier match against the Knights, as well as the Dragons winning their match against the Tigers, the Sharks needed to win this match by at least 30 points to break into the top 4. Nevertheless; they maintain their charge for a spot into the top four.
2 Fifita reprises 2016 grand final heroics
One key in the Sharks’ victory was the presence of and try to representative prop Andrew Fifita. Despite the controversy that has surrounded Fifita during his career, there is no doubting his qualities as a player, making him vital for the Sharks, as well as at representative level.
In the first half of this match, Fifita found himself benched by the Sharks’ coaching staff for conceding a penalty, which was crucial in the Cowboys scoring a try via Coen Hess. Fifita would find himself on the bench for the next 40 minutes, before being reintroduced into the match by Shane Flanagan. This proved to be a master stroke, as he would barge over for a try to regain the lead for his side, which they would retain and consolidate on for the remainder of the match. The try was very reminiscent of his heroics in the 2016 grand final against the Storm, where he barged over for a try, which proved to be the match winner. His try celebration was a sight to behold, as he gestured and shouted towards the coaching box for his team (primarily Jim Dymock). In addition, his presence proved telling, as his side were able to eventually see off the Cowboys’ challenge in the final 10 minutes.
Moreover, although they needed 70 minutes to see off the brave Cowboys, the Sharkies had to overcome injuries of their own, as Jayden Brailey and Jesse Ramien suffered knee and ankle injures, respectively. They were also without key forward Wade Graham due to injury. This win ensured that Valentine Holmes had a milestone game to remember, as the Townsville born Sharks fullback played his 100th first grade match.
3 Cowboys back to the foot of the ladder
The Cowboys were off the bottom of the ladder prior to this match, given the Eels lost their match to the Storm on Friday. For it to remain that way, they needed to win this match, or lose by no more than a solitary point. The way that the match transpired, it appeared that the Cows were determined to not let the Sharks get away from them, as they continued to peg back the Sharks, courtesy of tries to Hess, McLean and Cooper. They were only 18-16 down and very much in with a chance to snatch victory in this match.
Unfortunately, the sin binning of Asiata, due to a professional foul, put paid to any such chances. The Sharks would score a try almost immediately after the sin binning, through Josh Dugan. Then at the stroke of full time, their lead was inflated through a Jayson Bukuya. It seemed rather harsh on the Cowboys, as they were eager to continue their quest to avoid the wooden spoon. However, despite their efforts, some crucial errors, a higher missed tackle count and ill-discipline proved costly for the Cowboys, and the loss sees them unfortunately relegated to the foot of the ladder.
4 Not the Sydney farewell for Johnathan Thurston
One other motivating factor for the Cowboys in this match was the fact that this would be the final competitive match for Johnathan Thurston in Sydney, given they would not be participating in this year’s finals, and that the Cowboys’ final matches for the season are both in Queensland. This meant that the Cows were also eager to deliver a win in their skipper’s final game in Sydney. It is well known that Thurston commenced his NRL career in Sydney with the Bulldogs. He would spend 29 games across 4 years there, before making the move to the Cowboys, where his became the best player in the world.
Despite the respect and admiration for JT from across the rugby league spectrum, including the Sharks, the fact is the men from the Sutherland Shire had their own agenda in mind, and needed to spoil JT’s Sydney farewell in order to meet their agenda. Spoil his Sydney farewell is exactly what the Sharkies did, as they saw off the challenge from the men from the tropics, to also send them back to the bottom of the ladder. Regardless of the result, the Sharks showed an abundance of respect to JT by presenting him with an indigenous Sharks jersey, and forming a guard of honour for him, as he walked off Southern Cross Group Stadium for the final time.
5 Vital upcoming matches for both sides
The Sharks won this match to ensure that they remain in touch with the top 4. However, they are level on points with the 4th placed Dragons and 5th placed Panthers, while remaining behind 5hem due to inferior points differential. Similar to their bitter rivals the Dragons, the Sharks have a favourable draw in their final 2 matches, as they’re up against teams who are well out of the top 8. Conversely, the Panthers are up against the Storm and Warriors, both of whom are in the top 8. Therefore, in order to ensure they finish in the top 4 and secure a finals double chance, the Sharks can ill-afford to drop any match, and must improve their points differential.
For the Cowboys, they find themselves at the bottom of the ladder, and face a highly critical match next week against fellow strugglers, the Eels, at home. Whilst both teams find themselves on 14 points, the Cowboys find themselves in last place due to an inferior points differential to the Eels. It seems rather harsh on the Cowboys that they find themselves at the bottom of the ladder, given the Eels were the ones who spent most of the season there. That counts for little in the end, however. As such, they must win their next matches against the Eels and Titans, if they are to have the best chance of avoiding their first wooden spoon since 2000.
One factor that is in the Cowboys’ favour is that the Eels are against the high flying Roosters in the final round, while they are against the Titans, whom they have a good record against. The Cows have even greater motivation next week, as they will be very eager to deliver champion skipper Johnathan Thurston a win in his final match in front of his adoring fans at home.
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