Sunday 24 September 2017 / 10:19 PM

2016 preview: Cronulla Sharks

In a nutshell…

Cronulla put the crippling ASADA saga and the scandal-ravaged 2014 wooden spoon season behind them to rejoin the NRL’s elite last year, overcoming on 0-4 start to surge to sixth spot. After eliminating Souths, even a semi-final thrashing from the North Queensland couldn’t dampen enthusiasm in the Shire. The arrival of blue-chip half James Maloney and the development of budding superstars Jack Bird and Valentine Holmes points to a golden period for the former whipping boys of the premiership.

 

Recruitment

Gains: James Maloney (Sydney Roosters), Chad Townsend (New Zealand Warriors), Jesse Sene-Lefao (Manly Sea Eagles), Jordan Drew (Brisbane Broncos), Josh Cleeland (Ipswich Jets), Joseph Paulo (Paramatta Eels), Kurt Capewell (Ipswich Jets), Matt McIlwrick (Sydney Roosters)

Losses: Michael Gordon (Parramatta Eels), Blake Ayshford (New Zealand Warriors), Josh Addo-Carr (Wests Tigers), Jeff Robson (New Zealand Warriors), Kyle Stanley (retirement), Curtis Scott (Melbourne Storm), Tinirau Arona (Wakefield)

The departure of Michael Gordon and Jeff Robson has been offset by the arrival of James Maloney and Chad Townsend, while Jesse Sene-Lafao, Joseph Paul, Jordan Drew and Matt McIlwrick have bolstered the depth and variety of the Sharks’ squad.

 

Backs

A sensation at five-eighth last year, Jack Bird is slated to fill the fullback role – which means Valentine Holmes will stay on the wing. The 2015 three-quarter line of Holmes, Gerard Beale, Ricky Leutele and Sosaia Feki would appear to be locked in, but Drew will push hard for a guernsey.

 

Halves

If Bird does indeed don the No.1 jumper, Ben Barba and Townsend will fight it out to partner James Maloney in the halves. The versatility of the likes of Bird, Holmes and Barba is a definite plus for the Sharks, however. Fa’amanu Brown, who replaced Todd Carney as a teenage rookie in 2014 before a knee injury ruined last year’s campaign, is another halves alternative.

Forwards

Boast one of the most dynamic backrows in the game in Wade Graham, Luke Lewis and Paul Gallen, while Andrew Fifita and Sam Tagatese are entrenched up front. That leaves Jayson Bukuya, Chris Heighington, Matt Prior, David Fifita, Paulo and Sene-Lefao to grapple for 3-4 bench spots. Michael Ennis has an iron-clad grip on the No.9, but Matt McIlwrick’s ability to cover backrow could see him forge an interchange spot as a utility, while fellow Christchurch product Brown is also an option – if Shane Flanagan doesn’t opt to carry Barba on the bench.  

Trump cards

James Maloney: His record speaks for itself, steering the enigmatic Warriors to a grand final in 2011 and starring in the Roosters’ premiership success two years later. The brilliant playmaker, who record 20 try assists and 12 line-breaks last year, has played 14 finals matches in six seasons as a permanent first-grader. Maloney could be the Sharks’ missing premiership link.

Wade Graham: One of the most valuable forwards in the game, Graham is tough, industrious, wonderfully skilled and a born leader – as well as boasting 153 NRL appearances before turning 25. Should be a shoe-in to make his Origin debut for the Blues this year.

Valentine Holmes: The wiry youngster became the first Cronulla player in seven years to rack up a double-figure try tally, crossing 16 times in 25 games at wing and fullback, while he also nailed two match-winning field goals. A freakish talent destined to be a long-term No.1, Holmes still provides mountains of value on the flank. His Emerging Origin camp snafu wasn’t ideal, but he should be better for the ordeal.  

Michael Ennis: What a renaissance ‘Ennis the Menace’ enjoyed last year. His niggly play suits the Sharks’ rugged style, but Ennis’ attacking game hit an unprecedented peak with 18 try assists – incredible for a 31-year-old whose career seemed to be on the downturn.

Under the pump

Jack Bird: The Dally M Rookie of the Year is likely to have to wrestle with the dreaded ‘second-year syndrome’ from a brand new position, without the crutch of the super-steady Jeff Robson there to guide him.

Chad Townsend: Front-runner to partner Maloney in the halves, Townsend is back at his old club but will be under intense pressure to consistently produce the goods. When Townsend was on for the Warriors, he was a tremendous foil for Shaun Johnson – but when he wasn’t, he was a huge drain on the side’s performance. Not the best organising half around, which piles extra pressure on Maloney.

 

X-factors

Andrew Fifita: Injury, suspension and personal problems have limited the giant prop’s involvement since his breakout 2013 campaign – but when he’s on the park, he almost always delivers. Produces huge numbers on both sides of the ball and regularly comes up with the big play, a major bonus for any side to possess in their front-row.

Ben Barba: The big-money Barba gamble failed to pay off for the Sharks last year, producing his best only in brief spurts and coming off the bench in 13 of his 19 appearances. A strong showing at the Nines seems to suggest that Dally M form is still bubbling away below the surface, but if he can’t cement the fullback spot it’s unclear where he fits into Flanagan’s plans.

Paul Gallen’s fitness: An absolute machine when on the park – averaging over 200 metres, 2 offloads, 1.5 tackle breaks and 33 tackles a game – Gallen has missed 40 games over the past four seasons, and the indications are he wants to go around in the Origin arena one last time.

Achilles heel

The weight of history. The Sharks celebrate their 50th season in 2016, but they are still without a title to show for half a century of endeavour. Only long-suffering North Sydney endured a longer premiership drought (77 seasons) – and the Bears at least had a pair of 1920s title in the cabinet.

 

2015 Stats Leaders

Tries: Valentine Holmes – 16

Try Assists: Michael Ennis – 18

Line-breaks: Valentine Holmes – 15

Tackle-breaks: Wade Graham – 74

Average metres: Paul Gallen – 216.1

Average tackles: Michael Ennis – 35.7

 

Goalkicking

The NRL’s top point-scorer for the last three seasons, Maloney boasts an 80.53% career success-rate off the tee, while he landed over 100 goals in each of his three years with the Roosters at over 84% – a pretty handy replacement for Michael Gordon. Meanwhile, Holmes slotted 11 from 13 for the Sharks last year.

The coach

A controversial figure amidst the supplements scandal that brought the club to its knees, Shane Flanagan copped his punishment and returned from a year’s ban to steer the reigning wooden spooners to sixth spot – an achievement that didn’t receive its due recognition.

 

The captain

It may be Gallen’s final season of a decorated career – and what better way to go out than inspiring his club to a watershed success. Plenty of captaincy material in the squad courtesy of Ennis, Graham and Lewis.

 

Rep drain

Gallen and Ennis are NSW incumbents, while Lewis, Bird, Graham, Fifita and Maloney are all Blues contenders. The Sharks won’t have to worry about losing Holmes to Queensland duty this year.

The draw

Based on last year’s finishing positions, the Sharks have the 10th-hardest draw – not a bad result. Double-up showdowns with the Storm, Cowboys and Roosters are offset by having the opportunity to take on the Titans and Knights twice.

Big clash

A Round 1 trip to Townsville give the Sharks an opportunity to exorcise the demons of their 39-0 semi-final rout at the hands of the Cowboys, but the derby against St George Illawarra at Shark Park a week later could be a clash that shapes Cronulla’s campaign.

 

Best line-up

Jack Bird, Valentine Holmes, Gerard Beale, Ricky Leutele, Sosaia Feki, Ben Barba, James Maloney, Andrew Fifita, Michael Ennis, Sam Tagatese, Luke Lewis, Wade Graham, Paul Gallen. Int: Jayson Bukuya, Chris Heighington, Matt Prior, Joseph Paulo.  

 

What the bookies think

Premiership: $15 (8th favourites)

Top 4: $3.50

Top 8: $1.80

Wooden Spoon: $34

 

CBS experts’ prediction

Will – 2nd

Telly – 7th

Drew – 3rd

[YouTube – NRL Hub]

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About the author

Will Evans

CBS’s Editor-in-Chief and lead rugby league, union and cricket writer, Will is a Christchurch-based freelancer, also writing for Big League and Rugby League Review magazines, and The New Daily website. Will has written four rugby league books.

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