Dejected ... Todd Carney during the match. Photo: Getty
Cronulla's quest for an NRL premiership will begin with a difficult trip to Canberra next week after they botched a perfect opportunity to grab a home final, losing 22 - 36 to North Queensland.
The Cowboys knew before they game they would finish fifth and host a home final in Townsville regardless of the result, but still proved to be too strong for a Sharks side that were strangely lacklustre after the interval.
Despite speculation to the contrary, Cowboys coach Neil Henry opted against resting Johnathan Thurston and Matt Bowen, but he did give representative prop Matt Scott a spell ahead of next Saturday's elimination final against Brisbane.
Johnathan Thurston of the Cowboys tackles Nathan Stapleton of the Sharks. Photo: Getty
Thurston was hardly operating on full throttle, kicking the ball out on the full three times, but still had enough of an influence on the game, kicking six goals as his side chalked up a fourth successive win.
Gavin Cooper opened the scoring after six minutes, touching down after Bowen's bomb deceived Nathan Stapleton, but the Sharks' response was swift through Colin Best's try.
Best, in his last game for the club at Toyota Stadium before his retirement, charged over in the left corner after good work from Todd Carney.
Brent Tate restored the Cowboys' lead before Isaac De Gois darted over from dummy-half for the Sharks with Carney adding the extras.
However, prolific winger Ash Graham crossed for his 20th try of the season on the stroke of halftime and Thurston bisected the posts to give the visitors an 18-12 lead at the break.
Sharks skipper Paul Gallen gave his side the perfect start to the second stanza when he rumbled over from 20 metres, but instead of inspiring his side, it had the opposite effect as the Cowboys took control.
Quickfire tries from James Segeyaro and James Taumalolo silenced the 16,829 crowd and Graham made it 21 for the year with an easy effort on the hour-mark.
Andrew Fifita gave the hosts some hope with his fourth try of the season, nine minutes from time but the expected late rally never materialised from Shane Flanagan's side.
The Sharks may also be without Ben Pomeroy for the trip to the nation's capital after the centre was placed on report for a shoulder charge to the head of Thurston late in the game.
Pomeroy is almost certain to be referred straight the NRL judiciary on Wednesday under the new guidelines imposed by the ARLC last Thursday.