Cronulla has qualified for its first grand final in 19 years by dismantling North Queensland 32-20 in their preliminary final at the Sydney Football Stadium.A couple of late consolation tries made the scoreline look far better for the Cowboys than they probably deserved.
The reigning premiers were uncharacteristically sloppy in attack and defence as a rampant Cronulla side barrelled over them to advance to the decider for the first time since the 1997 Super League season.
It will be the first time the Shire is represented in the last game of the year in a unified competition since the 1978 NSWRL grand final as the Sharks aim to win their first premiership since entering the league in 1967.
"I kind of dreamed of it when I announced my retirement, thinking how good it would be, [but] this is unbelievable," hooker Michael Ennis told the ABC.
"This is as good as it gets."Legendary rugby league coach Jack Gibson once said waiting for Cronulla to win the grand final was like leaving the porch light on for Harold Holt, and many Sharks fans turned up in wetsuits with signs of Holt saying: "I'm coming home."
The NRL's decision to move the game from Cronulla's home of Shark Park raised some ire, but a crowd of 36,717 packed into Moore Park to make the Sharks feel at home.
"They were unbelievable," back rower Wade Graham said.
"When I was walking over to that side for the kick-offs I was getting goose bumps, that's how loud they were."
Cowboys looked beaten from opening whistleWith Cronulla coming into the game after a week off and North Queensland backing up from a brutal 90-minute bash-fest against Brisbane, concerns over how much the Cowboys had left in the tank looked well-founded early on Friday night.
Their night started in shocking fashion, with full-back Lachlan Coote continuing his nightmare ball-handling run, dripping the first kick that was sent his way.
It immediately put the visitors under the pump at Andrew Fifita appeared to have made them pay when he stormed over in the sixth minute.
The Cowboys were given a reprieve when the bunker found a double movement, but the Sharks kept storming, crossing in the 22nd minute when Sosaia Feki leapt over in the left corner on the end of a left-side shift.
Things went from bad to worse when, with the Sharks already pressuring the line, Kyle Feldt gifted them two more points by sending a drop-out into touch on the full.