Matt Bowen might be into the twilight of his career but he provided a vintage performance for North Queensland at Remondis Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
The Cowboys 31-18 victory over the Sharks ensures they are now in the box seat to progress to the finals, only requiring a victory over the Tigers next Saturday in Townsville to ensure they qualify.
The nifty fullback scored a try himself and set up another three as he wound the clock back several years. Bowen said his sides recent run of victories has been built on the back of a solid platform without the ball.
"(Our recent run) is a credit to our defence,it's been great in the last six weeks and it's paying off now. We're looking forward to next week.
"The Sharks are playing well and we knew it would be tough today, but it's good to get the two points."
The Cowboys win was soured slightly with prop Matt Scott leaving the field halfway through the first half with a suspected broken finger.
The opening 10 minutes was an arm-wrestle with both sides coming up with minimal handling errors and the game was contested between the two 20-metre lines.
The Sharks finally opened the scoring in the 10th minute through halfback Jeff Robson. After the pre-match withdrawal of Todd Carney, Robson had to take on more responsibility for his side and with the Cowboys defence rushing up on the last tackle, he caught them napping. He stepped off his left foot and found a gaping hole in the middle of the North Queensland ruck and muscled his way over the line.
Matt Bowen hit back for the Cowboys 10 minutes later with a typical Bowen-like play. In a similar fashion to the way the Cowboys conceded the opening try, the Sharks defence was guilty of racing up on the outside. Bowen stepped off his left foot before pushing away from Chris Heighington to score out wide.
Heading into the break it was Bowen at it again, with the help of Thurston.
The Cowboys five-eighth found his fullback on the right edge and with a brilliant piece of play Bowen caught the pass before throwing it onto his foot in the one motion. Brent Tate won the race to the ball to put the visitors in front as Matt Scott left the field with a suspected broken finger.
The Sharks then hit back in the shadows of halftime through second-rower Jayson Bukuya. Robson went to the air with winger Beau Ryan outleaping Thurston for the ball before he passed back to his halfback. Robson drew Matt Bowen before sending Bukuya on his way and despite Antonio Winterstein's best efforts to roll him on his back to prevent the try it was to no avail as the video referee flashed the green lights.
A Michael Gordon penalty goal levelled the scores at 12-all at the break.
The Cowboys couldn't have started the match in worse fashion to start the second half with Antonio Winterstein forcing a pass on just the second tackle they had in possession.
From the ensuing set Jeff Robson kicked on the last with Cowboys fullback Matt Bowen attempting to pick the ball up at full speed. Unfortunately for his side, he overran the ball with Sharks second-rower Bukuya winning the race for the ball just in front of Winterstein.
Sharks halfback Robson was disappointed at his side's performance, but didn't use the loss of Todd Carney pre-game as an excuse.
"We dropped a lot of ball, gave away too many penalties JT and Bowen play a lot of footy on you, wore us down in the end," he said.
Two tries in four minutes - one to Gavin Cooper and another to Tariq Sims threatened to blow the game open but the plucky Sharks stuck at it, but their left-side attack was affected by the loss of Carney.
Thurston added an awkward-looking field goal in the shadows of fulltime, before Gavin Cooper finished off a great attacking movement down the right side which was started by the unlikely James Tamou.
Sharks skipper Paul Gallen faces a nervous wait after being placed on report in the 53rd minute for an alleged crusher tackle which will no doubt be scrutinised by the match review committee.
The Sharks travel to Canberra Stadium next Sunday night as they tune up for the finals.
Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks 18 North Queensland Cowboys 31
Venue: Endeavour Field
Halftime Score: 12 all
LeagueUnlimited.com Players of the Match:
3 points - Matthew Bowen
2 points - Johnathan Thurston
1 point - James Tamou
CRONULLA-SUTHERLAND SHARKS (18)
Tries: Jeff Robson, Jayson Bukuya (2)
Conversions: Michael Gordon (2/3)
Penalty Goals: Michael Gordon (1/1)
NORTH QUEENSLAND COWBOYS (31)
Tries: Matthew Bowen, Brent Tate, Gavin Cooper (2), Tariq Sims
Field Goals: Johnathan Thurston (1/1)
Conversions: Johnathan Thurston (4/5)
Penalty Goals: Johnathan Thurston (1/1)
LeagueUnlimited.com Live Commentary
Interchange: 14. Isaac De Gois 15. Chris Heighington 17. Anthony Tupou 20. Ben Ross
Cowboys: 1. Matthew Bowen 2. Wayne Ulugia 3. Brent Tate 4. Kane Linnett 5. Antonio Winterstein 6. Johnathan Thurston (c) 7. Robert Lui 8. Matthew Scott (c) 9. Rory Kostjasyn 10. James Tamou 11. Gavin Cooper 12. Glenn Hall 13. Joel Riethmuller
Interchange: 14. Jayden Hodges 15. Tariq Sims 16. Scott Bolton 17. Ricky Thorby 18. Ashton Sims
Scored by Jeff Robson. Conversion attempt by Michael Gordon successful.
Jeff Robson opens the scoring this afternoon for the Sharks. It was all too easy on the last with the Cowboys outside defence racing up off their line which left a gaping hole in the middle for him to step and dive over under the posts. Gordon adds the extras from in front.
Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks 6-0
Scored by Matthew Bowen. Conversion attempt by Johnathan Thurston successful.
Matt Bowen hits back for the Cowboys with a superb individual effort. He threw the dummy on the outside before forcing his way into the in-goal after a step off his left foot. Thurston adds the extras.
Scored by Brent Tate. Conversion attempt by Johnathan Thurston successful.
Brent Tate puts the Cowboys ahead courtesy of a perfectly placed kick off Matt Bowen's boot. Thurston found his fullback who caught the ball before throwing it on his foot for Tate to win the race. Thurston makes it 2/2 with the boot.
North Queensland Cowboys 12-6
Scored by Jayson Bukuya. Conversion attempt by Michael Gordon unsuccessful.
Bukuya scores for the Sharks and it was magical work from Beau Ryan in the leadup. Robson went to the air, Ryan outleapt Thurston before passing back to Robson who found Bukuya in support. Gordon drags the conversion across the face.
North Queensland Cowboys 12-10
Penalty goal attempt by Michael Gordon successful.
Michael Gordon locks us up at halftime with a 34-metre penalty goal.
Scored by Jayson Bukuya. Conversion attempt by Michael Gordon successful.
Bukuya gets his first career double after Matt Bowen was clean bowled by Robson's kick. The big second rower then won the race to the ball just in front of a despairing dive from Winterstein. Gordon adds the extras.
Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks 18-12
Scored by Gavin Cooper. Conversion attempt by Johnathan Thurston successful.
Cooper hits back for the Cowboys with a great straight-running line off the pass from Lui. Thurston locks us up again in the Shire.
Scored by Tariq Sims. Conversion attempt by Johnathan Thurston unsuccessful.
Tariq Sims puts the Cowboys back in front and again it was Bowen with the sleight of hand as he put his second-rower one-on-one with Tagataese and he was too strong. Thurston hits the post.
North Queensland Cowboys 22-18
Penalty goal attempt by Johnathan Thurston successful.
Thurston puts the Cowboys out by a converted try.
North Queensland Cowboys 24-18
Field goal attempt by Johnathan Thurston successful.
Thurston with an awkward attempted field goal somehow finds its way over the crossbar and the Cowboys are home this afternoon.
North Queensland Cowboys 25-18
Scored by Gavin Cooper. Conversion attempt by Johnathan Thurston successful.
Gavin Cooper secures the win for the visitors with his second try of the afternoon. Tamou started it, with a basketball pass over the top to Linnett who then found Cooper back in support. Thurston adds the extras.
North Queensland Cowboys 31-18