Five Key Points - Elimination Final
It was a loss that no doubt proved a bitter pill to swallow for the Sharks players and coach Shane Flanagan.
A number of crucial calls went the way of their opponents, with the coach hardly hiding his disappointment at the post-match press conference as he described in detail the mistakes made by the match officials.
The Sharks had their chances so seal it, but in the end it was a Cowboys penalty goal late which leveled the scores, before Michael Morgan slotted a field goal during the first period of extra time, a point which would ultimately seal their 15-14 win.
It was a disappointing finish to their premiership defense, with the Sharks now needing to find some positives from the 2017 and look towards what lies ahead.
But what were the key points to come from the Sharks loss? Here’s what we thought.
1. Crowds are down, no wonder
The NRL will go away from week one of the finals wondering why crowds struggled to meet expectations.
Over 20,000 turned out on Friday night for the Roosters v Broncos, a similar crowd was in Melbourne to see the Storm beat the Eels, before the two sudden-death games could attract only a fraction over 15,000 fans.
However when considering that a series of dubious calls decided the Manly v Penrith game, then similar blunders impacted the result in the Sharks loss to the Cowboys and its little wonder fans are left disillusioned.
As Flanagan said at his post-match press conference, it might be too late to save the Sharks season, but the NRL needs to fix their refereeing issues and do it quickly if they want to win back the trust of the fans.
2. What is a professional foul?
The sin-bin has been sparingly used throughout 2017, then for some reason referees now seem desperate to send players off for 10 minutes during the big end of season contests.
James Maloney was given his marching orders on the stroke of half time for a professional foul, despite the fact the kick chaser had no chance of retrieving the ball, while at the same time a North Queensland teammate was called off side by Ashley Klein’s sideline official.
Klein declined to take the advice of his touch judge, then somehow deemed Maloney’s action warranted the most severe of penalties.
It was one of many decisions made on the night that resulted in plenty of head-scratching, with the Sharks left asking the question as to what constitutes a professional foul.
3. Bird flys out with his head high
Jack Bird was emotional following what ultimately proved to be his last game in Cronulla colours before heading to the Broncos but he can fly north with his head held high after a strong performance against the Cowboys.
Excepting for one second-half error, Bird was outstanding in defense and ran hard with the football, showing the form Sharks fans had become familiar with during his three-year career at the club.
His kick chase was excellent throughout, with Bird partly responsible for jolting the ball loose from the grip of Antonio Winterstein, resulting in his teams first try, then he capped off his night in winning the race to a Chad Townsend grubber for the Sharks second four-pointer.
He will be missed with everyone at Sharks wishing him luck in his future endeavours – although maybe not when the Broncos visit Southern Cross Group Stadium.
Farewell also to Gerard Beale, a member of the Premiership winning team in 2017 who was in strong form towards the end of the season and is rumored to be moving on in 2018.
4. Possession proved critical
Another sub-par completion rate, only 63 per cent in the loss to the Cowboys, proved critical.
With the Cowboys at over 80 per cent, meaning they had 57 per cent of the football on the night, again the Sharks were their own worst enemies.
Some of the errors were self-inflicted, others came about due to the questionable refereeing calls, but whatever way you look at it, the Sharks were forced to do a lot more defending than their rivals.
In the end an error put the Cowboys in position to kick the game winning field goal.
As it has been all year, hold the ball and good things happen, turn it over and the game become difficult.
5. It’s difficult to defend
There is obviously a reason why no team has defended the NRL title since the Broncos achieved the double way back in 1992-1993. It’s extremely difficult to do.
The premiers come into a new season with a target on their back, as teams lift when challenging the champs, while with any sort of personnel change means what worked perfectly well one year might not translate into repeat success the following.
The Sharks certainly had their moments during 2017, and other than for the dubious decisions at Allianz yesterday that have been spoken about, might still be in with a chance in this finals series.
But that being said, finishing fifth leaves a team open to a night like the one the Sharks experienced and they will rue a couple of losses in games they could have won, for not getting the double chance.
However if looking for positives, the Sharks have found a ‘blue-chipper’ in hooker Jayden Brailey, Valentine Holmes is a star of the game can only get better at the back, with their quality crop of youngsters in the NYC set to put pressure on the established stars in the years to come.
It’s hard to find positives right now, but the Sharks aren’t going away anytime soon and are set to again be contenders in 2018 and beyond.