COWBOYS 14 CRONULLA 20

TOWNSVILLE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 24:  Glenn Hall of the Cowboys is tackled by Paul Gallen of the Sharks during the round four NRL match between the North Queensland Cowboys and the Cronulla Sharks at Dairy Farmers Stadium on March 24, 2012 in Townsville, Australia.  (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Ironman … Paul Gallen gets to grips with Glenn Hall. Photo: Getty Images

"THAT happens to me every week!" Australia halfback Johnathan Thurston blasted last night when his long-time foil Matt Bowen was reported in the gripping loss to Cronulla.

MATCH STATS

The late-night clash at Dairy Farmers Stadium had reached its flashpoint. With the Sharks down 10-2, powerhouse Paul Gallen had split the Cowboys up the middle, linked up with Nathan Gardner, and replacement John Morris scrambled over the line after a wrestle with two defenders including the North Queensland skipper.

In the background, Gardner lay on the turf as a result of a full-bodied challenge from Bowen.

Video referee Phil Cooley and match officials Tony De Las Heras and Gerard Sutton came up with a novel call after Morris touched the Steeden to the turf. One, Bowen's challenge had been high and he would be placed on report. Two, Todd Carney had helped Morris get over line, so the try would be disallowed.

"How was that high?" Thurston stormed. "That happens to me every week."

Gallen complained too, about the disallowed try. In the end, as he has so often, he simply took the entire contest in his fist and insisted that Cronulla win.

Until the Bowen incident, North Queensland looked to be eking their way to victory. After an early Carney goal following an Ashley Graham indiscretion, Gavin Cooper crossed off a Bowen cross-kick and Graham pounced on Bowen's little dab into the corner from dummy half.

Even though Morris was denied four points, that 60 seconds just short of half-time swung the contest. Shortly after the penalty, replacement Andrew Fafita chased a Jeff Robson kick and claimed his first Sharks try just short of the dead-ball line, which Robson converted.

Then Gallen charged yet again into the teeth of the North Queensland defence. Five-eighth Carney's kick went to ground, Thurston unsuccessfully tried to pick it up, and centre Ben Pomeroy swept though to claim a try.

From nothing, Cronulla led 14-10 at half-time. With rain falling lightly but constantly, North Queensland looked to have regained control four minutes into the second half.

Bending over to pick up a lolling kick, Gardner was poleaxed and had to be helped off with severe concussion. The ball, meanwhile, ended up the hands of Bowen, who scored a try that Thurston was unable to convert. Adding to the tension among the 11,364 fans, he also missed a penalty goal attempt not long afterwards.

What started as a dour struggle became an epic, players held up over the line or, in the case of Cronulla winger John Williams, the ball lost over the line. Gallen's one-on-one try-saver on Ray Thompson under the Sharks' posts in the 70th minute was an Herculean feat to behold.

Playing prop after a thumb injury kept Bryce Gibbs in Sydney, Gallen's feat defied the most lavish superlatives. A couple of minutes after saving the Thompson try, he attacked the North Queensland line at the other end and won, forcing his way over with brute strength for the clincher, which Carney duly converted.

With two minutes to go, the Cowboys were still attacking, their loyal and hardy fans refusing to believe they would lose. Cronulla had a poor recent record and were backing up after Monday Night Football - a situation in which no side had won this year.

Gallen may not want to switch to prop full-time just yet - but last night's performance may have made the decision for him. Late in the contest, he had made 37 tackles, 14 hit-ups and 216 metres. Just another day at the office then.

Meanwhile, though Gallen has earned his fair share of raps, he won't get one better than this: Queensland coach Mal Meninga reckons the Cronulla captain is an Immortal in waiting.

''Darren, Cameron Smith and Paul Gallen are on their way up to that status,'' Meninga told The Sun-Herald. ''That's how highly people in rugby league rate Paul Gallen. There is always going to be comment about this stuff, people will make those decisions. I think he deserves it. What he's done in the game, particularly recently, is incredible.

''And then there's his loyalty. You don't get much loyalty now in the game these days …he'll go down as one of our greatest players as well.''

with Adrian Proszenko