Cronulla have continued their winning run against the NRL’s elite and stamped their status as title contenders with a 30-18 dismantling of North Queensland.
Cronulla jumped into equal fourth after they fought off a gallant Cowboys comeback on Saturday at Remondis Stadium.
The Sharks have won five of their six matches against the top four – Brisbane, Cowboys, Sydney Roosters and South Sydney – and look every bit a side that can make a run deep into the finals.
The Cowboys went into the game with a golden chance to move into top spot but, without co-captain Matt Scott, they were outmuscled by the Sharks’ pack.
With four rounds to go, the Sharks have put themselves within touching distance of a top-four finish but coach Shane Flanagan has played down talk of them belonging in upper echelons of the competition.
“I think we’ve got some improvement to do, to be honest,” Flanagan said.
“I think we’re competing really hard and we’re a tough footy side. I’ve heard it plenty of times this week about how we’re going in the grind but we think we can score some points like you saw tonight … We’re developing as a team and I don’t look too much into (their record against top- four teams).”
Sharks skipper Paul Gallen could face scrutiny from the NRL after being picked up by the on-field microphones telling the officials to “ref it evenly”.
When 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.
After the game, Gallen distanced himself from the comments, saying he was trying to swing momentum after the Cowboys came back to within six points and did not mean anything by it.
The Sharks shot out to a 12-0 halftime lead and, when Michael Gordon ran 80 metres after the resumption of play, 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 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.
Despite letting the Sharks put on three unanswered tries to start the game and having to come from 18-0 down against Canberra last week, coach Paul Green said there was nothing wrong with their concentration in the opening passages.
“We were camped down in our own end; their kicking game was very good; their energy off the defensive line was good,” Green said.
“You can say ‘we’ve been behind on the scoreboard at the start of the game’ – you can say it’s our starts. You can say that but I think you need to give Cronulla a bit more credit.”