Two clubs with empty trophy cabinets and lengthy tales of finals heartbreak go head to head on Saturday night in Townsville. The premiership-less North Queensland Cowboys and Cronulla Sharks square off at 1300SMILES Stadium – but will the prospect of a euphoric maiden triumph spur the rivals on, or will the weight of history prove a millstone around the clubs’ necks?
The Cowboys’ recent post-season misfortune is well-documented, exiting three seasons in a row on the back of controversial refereeing performances. The 1995 entrants were whipping boys for the first nine seasons of their existence, before a watershed finals charge in 2004 that saw the unheralded Graham Murray-coached outfit reach the preliminary final.
Johnathan Thurston arrived from the Bulldogs the following season and steered the Cowboys to the ’05 grand final, which they lost to Wests Tigers. Another preliminary final appearance followed in 2007. But the influence of JT – arguably the greatest player of his generation – has not been enough to take the club to the holy grail.
In week two of the 2012 finals, the Cowboys were on the wrong end of a couple of highly contentious calls – most notably the ‘Hand of Foran’ incident – in a 22-12 defeat to Manly. They came home with a wet sail in 2013 to snare eighth spot, but were knocked out by the Sharks 20-18 in a gripping match best remembered for Beau Ryan’s seventh-tackle try – a gut-wrenching loss that prompted outgoing coach Neil Henry to hint at an NRL conspiracy against the club.
Fancied to do some damage in last year’s playoffs after finishing fifth, the Cowboys flunked out again at the semi-final stage again in an epic 31-30 loss to Sydney Roosters after trailing 30-0 during the half. A Thurston try on the bell was pulled back due to the faintest of knock-ons by Robert Lui after the Roosters landed the winning field goal on the back of a dubious penalty.
Cronulla boasts a longer, equally tortured finals narrative that sees the club still searching for its first title in its 49th season. Entering the competition in 1967, the Sharks qualified for their maiden grand final in good time, going down 10-7 to Manly in the infamously violent 1973 decider.
The Sea Eagles were their nemesis again five years later, going down 16-0 in the grand final replay after the initial clash was drawn 11-all. An appearance in the 1997 Super League grand final (a 26-8 defeat to Brisbane) is the closest the Sharks have come since, with the club teetering on the brink of financial ruin on several occasions.
The Shire-dwellers lost preliminary finals in 1988, 1996, 1999-2001 and 2008, surrendering golden opportunities in ’88 and ’99 after finishing minor premiers. Following their aforementioned eclipse of the Cowboys two years ago, the Sharks went down 24-18 to Manly in another nail-biter.
But now these long-suffering teams have been afforded the opportunity to quell the demons of September campaigns past.
The Cowboys have been among the most highly-rated teams all seasons, piecing together an 11-match winning streak featuring a succession of extraordinary late comebacks. Michael Morgan’s move to five-eighth, Lachlan Coote’s outstanding campaign at fullback after missing all of last year injured, and astute buy Jake Granville’s rise as one of the NRL’s most dynamic hookers has provided the club with its best-ever spine – and, crucially, much-needed support for the mercurial Thurston.
They’ve had the wobbles over the latter rounds of the season, however, winning only two (against the struggling Warriors and Titans) of their last five games. Nevertheless, the Cowboys secured their first top-four berth in eight years…but find themselves in sudden-death territory after a hard-fought, gruelling 16-12 loss to Brisbane last week.
The Sharks have enjoyed a remarkable renaissance. Wooden spooners in 2014 with the ASADA saga and other tumultuous off-field developments looming large, they started this season 0-4. But they landed in sixth after winning 10 of their last 13 matches, narrowly missing a top-four spot thanks to a final-round loss to – you guessed it – the Sea Eagles.
Long regarded as a gritty defensive outfit, Cronulla’s younger brigade – headlined by Valentine Holmes, Jack Bird and Sosaia Feki – have emerged to balance out the Sharks’ tough squad led by Paul Gallen, Luke Lewis and Wade Graham. Buy-of-the-year Michael Ennis has added an extra edge to the side, while troubled duo Andrew Fifita and Ben Barba are potential finals X-factors.
Their resounding 28-12 win over South Sydney last week – becoming the first reigning wooden spooners to knock out the defending premiers in a finals series – has provided the unlikely contenders with invaluable momentum. Two wins over the Cowboys in 2015 may also give Saturday’s underdogs something of a psychological edge.
Of course, the job is only half-done for the winner of this fascinating do-or-die semi – a daunting preliminary final against impressive week one victors Melbourne Storm at AAMI Park awaits.
But encouraging the four teams that are preparing for sudden-death clashes in week two is the incredible statistic that in 18 seasons of eight-team finals series, the two sides that progressed straight through to week three have both won their preliminary finals just four times.
For now, though, the focus is on this weekend. The Cowboys and Sharks are trying to craft their own destiny, while ignoring the seemingly cursed paths each club has tread over the decades. One team will retain its opportunity to create an indelible piece of history; the other is in for a summer of soul-searching, with its fans left to ponder whether that breakthrough success will ever come.