Cronulla held off North Queensland 26-24 at Queensland Country Bank Stadium on Friday to notch four straight wins for the first time since 2018 but weren't satisfied - and coach Josh Hannay believes "it's a good sign".
The Sharks led by 14 with seven minutes to go but almost gave up their lead as Cowboys winger Kyle Feldt scored twice. Shaun Johnson's flawless goal-kicking (5/5) ended up the difference.
The controversial 77th-minute sin-binning of North Queensland hooker Reece Robson, who struck a falling Aiden Tolman high, helped Cronulla leapfrog their opponents into seventh place.
Not that they were cock-a-hoop, according to Hannay.
"A few of the players have actually said - and this is a good sign - that it feels a bit like a loss [because] we didn't put the Cowboys away tonight," the interim mentor said after the win over his ex-club.
Match: Cowboys v Sharks
Round 15 -
Venue: Queensland Country Bank Stadium, Townsville
"It was the same against Penrith last week ... so that's a good sign that we're not happy with just winning. We've been disappointed that we're doing, obviously, a lot of good work for a lot of the game but the next step for us is to really go on with it."
While North Queensland cruelled themselves with errors and bizarre last-tackle options in the second half, Sharks fullback Will Kennedy was outstanding in his No.1 battle with Valentine Holmes.
Kennedy racked up 165 metres and a try assist while his Cowboys counterpart produced a massive 260 metres.
Johnson puts it on a platter for Tracey
"I'm a huge fan of Val's and I thought Will might have got the points on him tonight, it was elite out there by those two," Hannay said.
"Will Kennedy's starting to become one of those elite fullbacks."
Sharks pair Ronaldo Mulitalo and Will Chambers - tossed up as Queensland backline candidates for State of Origin II next Sunday - both scored tries in their final auditions.
Hannay backed Chambers, a 13-time Maroons veteran, to do the job if selected but noted that he came up with some questionable defensive reads late in the match as he shot in-field on his left edge.
Electric North Queensland centre Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow's name has also been bandied about for Maroons selection, but the 19-year-old flyer failed a HIA after a 22nd-minute head knock.
Johnson produced a deft grubber to open the scoring, curling it towards Connor Tracey for a try on the right edge.
The off-contract Johnson's show of class enhanced his case to be signed by another club next year and that inspired another unwanted Shark to follow his lead, making it 12-0 after 11 minutes.
Go go gadget arm from Feldt
Prop Aaron Woods bustled his way over the stripe for his third four-pointer of the season after Feldt invited the pressure by sending the kick-off out on the full.
North Queensland promptly pegged one back when halfback Tom Dearden, in his second game for the club, dummied and beat second-rower Siosifa Talakai on the outside to score.
Cronulla extended their advantage through a Johnson penalty goal but Francis Molo responded for the Cowboys following a line break by Lachlan Burr, who sped through some brittle defence.
Kennedy stands up Bowen to provide for Mulitalo
The visitors had the final say of the first half with a silky scrum move.
Johnson looped to the short side to create an extra number before Kennedy stood up Javid Bowen with a magical in-and-away and linked with Mulitalo to finish it off.
Chambers looked to have put the game to bed when he bagged his 83rd NRL try – and first as a Shark – in the 66th minute.
But Feldt somehow extended the ball to graze the line for his first four-pointer before cheekily dotting down for a close-range dummy-half try on the blindside to give Cronulla a mighty fright.