If the Sharks were looking to make a statement, they did so. Having lost in extra time in the last year’s finals to the Cowboys, they got their revenge in style with a 44-6 carve-up that put the rest of the competition on notice.
This was the most complete performance of the season from Craig Fitzgibbon’s men, who are now on a three-match winning run after their bye.
Nicho Hynes continued his Origin audition with another heap of try assists, Will Kennedy underlined his case to be the most improved fullback of 2023 and Siosifa Talakai partied like it was Morgan Harper in front of him. In truth, the list of standouts could have been 17 names long. They were that good.
“We started strong,” said Fitzgibbon. “They came back into it physically for a bit but I thought we were strong everywhere. Everyone did their job, everyone committed to the plan we had. It was pleasing.”
Jeremiah Nanai’s hip-drop on Sharks prop Braden Hamlin-Uele has him staring down the barrel of a ban of 4-5 games after the match review committee rated it a grade-three offence.
He has already sat out two matches this year for a spear tackle, he’ll now have to decide whether he takes on the judiciary.
It was a classic hip-drop, with the back-rower losing his legs due to fatigue and his studs body swinging around, boots off the deck, onto the back of Hamlin-Uele’s knees. The Sharks prop was raging and rightly so. It’s exactly what the game is trying to get rid of.
Even before that, Nanai was a liability. He gave away multiple penalties and was spotted up in defence, with the Sharks throwing far too much at him. His lateral defence has never been too strong, but it was exposed several times tonight.
If he was put up against Latrell Mitchell, Tom Trbojevic or Haumole Olakau’atu on an edge for Queensland, the Blues would have a field day.
Scott Drinkwater is facing a fine of $1800 for dangerous contact while Coen Hess has been pinged $3000 for tripping and he is lucky he didn’t cop a heftier sanction.
It was a night to forget for the Cowboys. Nanai and Hess were both binned, for their foul play.
Chad Townsend departed with a calf injury early in the second half and Tom Chester just before the close with a potential ACL tear. He will undergo scans on return to Townsville.
Coach Todd Payten said Townsend had been struggling with niggling injuries ahead of the game and was taken off in the hope that he could recover for their next game, which is not for ten days.
The Sharks did not escape, either. Braden Hamlin-Uele was taken off with a potential MCL injury incurred in the Nanai hip-drop incident, while Briton Nikora, one of their best in 2023, suffered a bad knee clash and was withdrawn as a precaution.
“Far from pretty,” was Payten’s blunt assessment of his side’s defeat.
“We started slow on the back foot, and then spent a lot of time in our own end. We got it back into an arm wrestle just before half time but conceding one quickly after and getting two blokes in the sin bin was just too difficult.
“A lot of the tries conceded didn’t come from system breakdowns, they came from one-on-one misses. (Sione) Katoa went over in the first half and we had two shots at him. Tackling is hurting us. That was far from NRL standard tonight.”
One of the vogue phrases among NRL coaches this year has been ‘frontloading our energy’: what they mean is starting fast, especially in the middle, in the hope that they can rest later with a points buffer behind them.
It seems obvious, but for years the prevailing wisdom was to play the long game, ‘get into the arm wrestle’, ‘win the right to play’ and so on.
The two coaches who talk most about ‘frontloading’ are Jason Demetriou and Brad Arthur, the two men with the most forwards-first yardage strategy, but it’s slipped into the Craig Fitzgibbon repertoire as well. You can see why.
His side blew the doors off the Cowboys in the first 20, essentially ending the contest as a physical battle in the opening quarter.
Not only were they 20-0 to the good, they had battered their opponents. The Cowboys managed just a 12m gain on one set, after which Sione Katoa scored.
“I was saying before the game that effort has been good, but there’s been a couple of technical things that you have to keep working at,” said Fitzgibbon.
“With defence, attitude and effort underpins it but I feel like we’ve been able to sort out a few technical issues and when we honour the laws of the game, the fundamentals and errors and penalties, we can back that up with strong defence, which is what we did tonight.”
As it happened, the frontloading of effort did bite them a little towards the end of the half with a few tired tackles that lead to Tom Dearden line breaks, but it didn’t matter. The Sharks were miles ahead and the game was done.
The bashup that came late was almost inevitable by that stage. There were elements of variance that went their way, given the bounce for Jesse Ramien’s try, the horror error for Hynes’ and the errors and discipline of their opponents, but it’s one thing to be given chances and another to take them. The Sharks were ruthless.
Coen Hess getting binned for tripping summed it up. This was a night in which everything that could go wrong, did.
The Cowboys made an error on their first set and the Sharks scored. They gave away a rake of penalties and were mercilessly punished. They lost their halfback early in the second half.
Scott Drinkwater dropped a ball straight in front of Hynes, Val Holmes got scattered by Katoa and Townsend was pancaked more than once. When you’re best players are going like busteds, then what can you expect from everyone else?
Payten will have to do video on this, because they always do, but he might be excused for not wanting his players to see it again. They were never in the game. It probably would help them all to just flush it and not dwell on tonight.
When you give them space, the Sharks’ attack is the match of any in the competition. There’s the hands that were on display for several of the tries, with quick catch-pass that gets both wingers at the corner, and the ability of Will Kennedy to chime into the line on either side and ice the moment with ball-playing in both directions.
But it’s what happens before that. The Sharks, as has been covered extensively in these pages before, are one of the best around for push supports – statspeak for having runners around the footy – and it was in full effect tonight.
When you see their outside backs lined up in equal numbers to the oppositions, it’s largely because the forwards inside have kept the middle honest by providing options to the ball carrier and distractions to the defenders.
If that sounds a bit complicated, then the simple answer would simply be to put on a tape of Cronulla’s performance here. It was a masterclass in how to run small ball attack, with yardage from the backfield and forwards running over and over again, regardless of whether or not they get the footy. It’s the threat that they might that makes the difference.