The North Queensland Cowboys have defeated the Cronulla Sharks in a scrappy round one affair, with both sides lacking polish in attack and defence.
Johnathan Thurston had a solid performance in his 300th game but, apart from his grubber to seal the Cowboys’ victory, appeared short on match fitness.
Kyle Feldt began his season in ideal fashion, with a towering bomb getting enough hang time to allow a pack of Cowboys forwards to drive Matt Prior back into his own in-goal.
The Cowboys showed they were ready to play patient early, as Jake Granville rolled a grubber into the in-goal to force a repeat set.
The Sharks survived a short-side raid with Te Maire Martin knocking on before giving and then receiving a penalty for their first attacking opportunity, and when a second chance came along they took a penalty goal to draw ahead early in the game.
Both teams knuckled down in defence and fell into an arm-wrestle, with good attack ending in kicks being shut down by eager defence.
One of Thurston’s eventually found joy when Sosaia Feki couldn’t handle a towering bomb, giving the Cowboys possession 10 metres out.
Taumalolo went close, only to be held up, but Justin O’Neill wouldn’t be denied when Thurston switched to the short side and fed the tall centre a perfect ball for him to crash over the line.
The Sharks’ woes were compounded when Valentine Holmes’ kick-off went dead, and Granville used the handy field position to draw the defence, sending Coen Hess into a gap at full speed to add four points under the post.
The Sharks rallied and, after a strong set earned them a penalty, a Townsend grubber found Josh Dugan virtually unmarked to score under the posts.
North Queensland struck right back when Martin looped a pass over the heads of Sharks defenders to find Kyle Feldt, who stepped inside and carried two defenders over the line, boosting the half-time score to 14-8.
The Cowboys took the advantage early in the first half, with a strong defensive set forcing a poor kick from the Sharks, which was compounded by a penalty for lying in the ruck.
It was a mirror image of the beginning of the first half, with another penalty allowing Thurston to take the two for a 16-8 lead.
The Sharks managed to post the first try of the second half when Ricky Leutele took an intercept, s[printing away and finding James Segeyaro, who went the rest of the way to score.
Chad Townsend made no mistake with the conversion out wide, setting up an enthralling climax.
But as has often been the case throughout his storied career, the man known as ‘JT’ would have the last laugh, with a close range grubber sneaking through the line for Gavin Cooper to scoop it up and score.
Thurston somehow missed the easy conversion but the Cowboys were deserved winners.