The Cronulla Sharks have secured passage to an historic appearance in the 2016 NRL Grand Final after they outmuscled the North Queensland Cowboys, 32-20.
Over 36,000 fans kept the turnstiles of Allianz Stadium ticking over ahead of the highly anticipated preliminary final which did not disappoint. The Cowboys, exhausted after a 90 minute performance against the Brisbane Broncos last Friday, were peppered on their goal-line with defensive set after set attempting to hold the hungry Sharks out.
The Sharks squandered early opportunities, with Andrew Fifita penalised for a double movement and Chad Townsend failing to ground the loose ball in the in-goal.
James Maloney scored first points with a penalty goal before the Cowboys' resilience was finally beaten when Sosaia Feki fought off Michael Morgan and Justin O'Neill to plant the ball down in the left corner in the 22nd minute.
Maloney managed to add another two points five minutes later when Michael Ennis opted for the penalty goal. Young halfback Chad Townsend, under criticism for his recent form, sought after some redemption and went even better as he crossed for a try after Maloney sliced through the Cowboys defence before he linked up with his halves partner to extend the margin.
A near-perfect half from the Sharks was capped off by Maloney's conversion as they went to the sheds leading 14-0. Cowboys fullback, Lachlan Coote who endured a nightmare spell against Brisbane the previous week hadn't enjoyed the first half of this game either, making an early handling error and facing strong Sharks defence. However, he found the line just two minutes into the second half, latching onto the ball after Chad Townsend failed to retrieve it safely from a Johnathan Thurston grubber.
Despite the Cowboys threatening to mount a comeback, the Sharks kept the pressure on when in possession, keeping the ball alive constantly with the second-phase play and their enthusiasm continued to pay off with seasoned veteran Luke Lewis running the perfect line off of Townsend's short pass, to reach out and find the line.
Sharks' pivot and star recruit for 2016, Maloney took on the line and somehow managed to get the ball down before converting his own four-pointer to take them out to a 20-point lead.
Another penalty goal followed by the outstanding no. 6 who scored his second with fifteen remaining after pulling off a stunning intercept before racing away for 60 metres to seal the Grand Final date next Sunday.
The reigning Premiers staged a late fightback and achieved a much more respectable scoreline thanks to a Kyle Feldt double and a late consolation try to young gun Coen Hess to bring the result to 32-20 in favour of the Cronulla side.
Cronulla now have the golden opportunity to bring home their maiden Premiership in their 50th season of competing in the league, with their opposition set to be announced tomorrow evening when the Minor Premiers, the Melbourne Storm host the second-placed Canberra Raiders. ANZ Stadium will certainly be a sea of blue and white support next week regardless of their opponents in the Big Dance with their long-suffering fans aching for their first title. Maybe this year, 2016, will be their fairytale.