Cronulla coach Craig Fitzgibbon will set about restoring the Sharks’ defensive steel after he was left to rue two costly blunders in the finals loss to North Queensland.
In a see-saw game on Saturday, the Cowboys snatched victory at PointsBet Stadium with a 44-metre Valentine Holmes field goal to wrap up a 32-30 win in golden point extra-time and book their place in a home preliminary final.
The Sharks could have felt hard done by, especially in a crucial period late in the game when Connor Tracey had a try chalked off and then got sin-binned for running Holmes off the ball as the latter attempted to place pressure on a kick to the in-goal.
The Sharks will now face the winners of Sunday’s elimination final between the Sydney Roosters and South Sydney with a preliminary final against Penrith on the other side.
Cronulla, though, will need to refocus on their defence.
From round 13 onwards through to the end of the regular season the Sharks have had the best defence in the NRL.
They have managed to restrict opponents to less than 12 points per game but on Saturday, Fitzgibbon was left frustrated by two first-half Cowboys tries that should never have been scored.
The first began with Tom Dearden scooting from dummy-half in his own half and waltzing through unchallenged, while Peta Hiku hoodwinked three defenders to run in from 20 metres out.
“I think we’re just really disappointed just two sets cost us in the first half,” Fitzgibbon said.
“Other than that, I thought we defended alright.
“We hung in there for long periods and turned the tables with some D.
“But just two sets in the first half weren’t good enough and bit us.
“We will address our defensive issues, for sure. We’ll find out who we are playing and we’ll make a plan and execute better than we did tonight.”
If there was a silver lining for Fitzgibbon it will have been the fact that his side looked convincing with the ball in hand, with Nicho Hynes particularly impressive.
“There’s a mixture of pride and disappointment (and there’s) excitement still,” he said.
“We get to have another crack. The boys are good. They obviously are disappointed but they know we have another shot next week.
“We’ll dust ourselves off and get prepared for next week.”