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Cowboys win, but the real winner might be the other five teams

When is a good game a good game? This was definately a good game, packed with moments and excitement and all that good stuff.

And yet, there’s the feeling that neither of these two will be happy – North Queensland will be happier, of course – because this was not the sort of game that results in many finals wins. It felt like sixth against seventh rather than second against third.

The extra time period was as grinding and conservative as the first ten should have been. The first ten minutes was the opposite. It’s rare to see a game with so many contact-based errors, and yet relatively few errors through expansive play. Confusion reigns.

My overall feeling is that the Sharks played marginally better, won the tactical battle, but let in several crucial errors at crucial times. Nicho Hynes, crestfallen on the park afterwards, said as much as well. They created their points but gifted the Cowboys plenty.

We’ve lost control again

There’s an assumption that coaches somehow attempt to control proceedings, to enact a game plan. If that’s true, I’m not sure that either would have gone to the break happy. By the end, both will think they left a lot to be desired.

Not that fans would have complained too hard, as it was a mightily entertaining game, largely because nobody seemed to have a clue what was going on.

There was defence, but it was hard rather than accurate. There was razzle dazzle, with both sides putting on set moves that resulted in tries, but it would be hard to say it was not enabled by poor defensive reads.

Siosifa Talakai was made to look like a back rower defending in the centres by Peta Hiku and at the other end, Scott Drinkwater reminded everyone why he was banished from frontline defence and stuck at fullback. It was not a banner night for tackling.

Playoff games aren’t meant to end 31-30. One suspects that the true winners here will be the coaches of the other five remaining teams, who will undoubtedly back themselves to keep their end of the defensive bargain in a knockout game.

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Got to be starting something

The Cowboys operated a very, very strange kicking policy. Ronaldo Mulitalo is one of the best kick returners in the league. He’s fourth in the league for kick return metres among wingers.

Yet, the Cowboys had only one man in mind when they put boot to ball. It’s not the wing I’d kick to, especially given that the other winger, Connor Tracey, is smaller, slower and only really a part time winger.

There might be method in the madness. The Sharks are superb set starters, generally off the back of Mulitalo and Sione Katoa, prior to his injury. The logic might well have been that Mulitalo could return kicks, allowing the Cowboys to load up on Will Kennedy and Tracey.

I’m not sure it worked: Tracey averaged 8m per run, which is par for the course, and pretty good when you consider that the bulk of them were no hoper hit ups. Talakai took a fair few, too, and though you could say it tired him out, I’m not sure it was worth presenting the ball to Mulitalo so frequently.

Let’s talk about sets, baby

Possession stats are fun. Through an hour of play, the Cowboys – theoretically – were having the better of the ball, with 52%. Yet the Sharks went through 36 sets to the Cowboys 30, giving them, obviously, far more opportunities to score.

It speaks to two things. For one, Cronulla had been far more effective at slowing North Queensland down. Play the ball speeds are something of a junk stat to my mind, and I haven’t got word limit to explain why, but for what it’s worth, the Sharks were going a lick quicker.

It’s noticeable that referee Adam Gee gave multiple set restarts for ruck infringements against North Queensland, who struggled badly to contain the momentum.

It’s a doubly strange one, because the Cowboys were gaining more ground per set and kicking longer, but with less reward.

Cronulla played straight, hard and got through their work effectively. In a game where neither side defended well, they gave themselves more opportunities to make the other side miss. It was only on the back of the sin bin to Tracey that the Cowboys evened up the count and eventually got their breakthrough.

It’s (not) Hammer time

Todd Payten has been rightly commended all year for his work, but there were some major errors on his part tonight.

His interchanges were confusing to say the least: Griffin Neame got eight minutes, Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow got six. In the second half, when both sides were tiring, there was a noticeable shift in momentum created by the Sharks subs, especially Andrew Fifita.

In game 250, Fifita got 16 minutes, from the 49th to the 65th, and in that time made a significant impact from the bench. It was a punch, at a perfect time, that the Cowboys chose not to throw.

Keep running up that ball

The halves are always at the centre of any finals battle, and the difference between the two in this game was stark.

For the Sharks, Matt Moylan and Nicho Hynes were threats creatively, interlinking to create several tries, but also in, for want of a better word, honesty.

Hynes is always a run threat, as much as any in the league, befitting a man who made his name as a fullback. Moylan, too, loves a dart. They both managed five.

Tom Dearden and Chad Townsend, however, often put the run away. Dearden had three – admittedly on of which he ran 60m through poor tackling – and Townsend had one.

Granted, Chad rarely offers a running threat, but it was still noticeable how happy both were to move the ball to strike players and, conversely, the willingness of the Sharks to go straight.

My feeling was that the Sharks cretaed their points off good attack, but gifted the Cowboys theirs cheaply. Not that Todd Payten will care. It’s fish and chip paper now.

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