For the second straight year, North Queensland’s NRL season ended on the back of a shocking refereeing blunder as Cronulla booked a semi-final berth with an enthralling 20-18 win at Allianz Stadium.
With a farcical finish in which Kane Linnett was denied a try, when play continued with the clock stopped on 41 seconds remaining for an entire set, the Cowboys bowed out in heartbreaking fashion as the Sharks booked another sudden-death clash against the loser of Saturday night’s Manly-Sydney Roosters clash.
In the same area of the ground as where the Cowboys were dudded in last year’s finals when a Kieran Foran knock-on passed muster with the video referee, Beau Ryan scored a try on the seventh tackle.
Sosaia Feki sewed up the win with a try seven minutes from fulltime to end a contest which was never in the bag, but it was a lapse in concentration by referee Matt Cecchin 65 minutes earlier which will remain the main talking point.
With the Cowboys handing over possession near the Sharks’ line via a Robert Lui grubber, Cecchin lost track of the tackle count, calling ‘four’ at what should have been the fifth tackle.
Prop Sam Tagataese produced a barnstorming run on what should have been the sixth tackle – before a some splendid Todd Carney vision resulted in Ryan crossing out wide.
It was the perfect reply after a Feki knock-on handed the Cowboys a close-range scrum from which they worked a brilliant play for Brent Tate to go over untouched.
Ben Pomeroy put the Sharks in front for the first time when he crossed off the back of the brilliant Michael Gordon and, as the game wore on, the Cowboys progressively looked further and further out of the contest.
Then up stepped Wayne Ulugia – who dropped the ball over the line in the first half – to change the complexion of the game, snatching a Carney pass and racing 95 metres to lock it up at 12-12.
Jason Taumalolo crossed seven minutes later and the Cowboys were back in front, but the Sharks fought back with Tagataese going over after Luke Lewis and Gordon combined to get Cronulla within striking distance.
Gordon missed a conversion he should have made and the Sharks trailed 18-16 and, despite Carney clearly hampered by his dodgy hamstring, they went over again when an ugly Jeff Robson pass found Feki.
There was still life in the Cowboys, who stopped the clock at 41 seconds near their own line when they packed a quick scrum.
They marched downfield and looked like they had stolen it at the death – Cecchin awarding the try to Linnett only for the replay to show John Morris had pushed his leg over the sideline in an epic finish.