Will Evans’ series of 2017 NRL club previews appeared in the summer special of Rugby League Review magazine.
The euphoria surrounding Cronulla’s maiden premiership triumph in the club’s 50th season has barely subsided, but several stumbling blocks to becoming the first team in 24 years to go back-to-back in a full competition have already emerged.
The controversial Andrew Fifita questioned his immediate future in the game after being left out of the Kangaroos’ Four Nations squad on behavioural grounds, though tension around that furore seems to have eased for now.
Ben Barba testing positive to cocaine – and the Sharks’ subsequent release of the troubled fullback – will be difficult for the side to overcome. There is a chance Barba could return to the club, but he has to sit out a 12-game ban first under the NRL’s drugs policy.
Valentine Holmes was always destined for the No.1 jumper, but moving the new Test winger from the flank depletes the Sharks’ firepower out wide, while his playmaking skills will need plenty of fine-tuning.
The Sharks also have a huge task on their hands retaining in-demand rep stars Holmes and Jack Bird, with an army of clubs throwing their cheque-books at the pair.
But Michael Ennis’ retirement shapes as Cronulla’s biggest problem spot. Former Tigers rake Manaia Cherrington, versatile fellow Kiwi Fa’amanu Brown, veteran utility Daniel Mortimer and NYC Player of the Year Jayden Brailey will vie for the No.9 jumper, but one of them will also be required on the bench – an adjustment for Shane Flanagan’s bench rotation following the loss of 80-minute hooker Ennis.
Livewire James Segeyaro has also been linked to the Sharks, but securing a release from Leeds is proving problematic.
Jeremy Latimore is an excellent bargain pick-up, but the gamble on Tony Williams – who has given dubious value in four years at Canterbury – is harder to fathom.
Nevertheless, the Sharks still boast a tremendous balance of flair, toughness, youth and experience, and the defending champs should be in the top four or thereabouts.
BEST RECRUIT: Jeremy Latimore, Tony Williams and Daniel Mortimer are all looking for one last NRL chance, but young ex-Wests Tigers hooker Manaia Cherrington may be the Sharks’ top-value buy of 2017. Plagued by injury this year, the 2015 Kiwis tourist will be raring for an opportunity to show what he can do.
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STRENGTH: Arguably the best-balanced line-up in the competition, featuring outstanding playmakers, sizzling attacking players out wide, tough and creative forwards, and stacks of versatility.
WEAKNESS: Besides the perennial premiers curse, the Sharks will be without two members of their spine – the retired Ennis and the released Barba – which seriously dents their leadership and continuity.
KEY MAN: James Maloney was the single-most important player to Cronulla’s watershed success in 2016, and his direction will be even more crucial to the Sharks’ premiership defence with Ennis and Barba gone.
PLAYER TO WATCH: One of the best players not playing regular NRL, Fa’amanu Brown has a golden opportunity to press for a permanent first-grade spot next year. The ultra-versatile Christchurch product showed he was more than up to the task during his four outings in 2016, and is a strong contender for the No.9 jumper or a bench utility role.
— CommentaryBoxSports (@Comm_Box_Sports) November 15, 2016
YOUNG GUN: Desperately unlucky to miss out on the Sharks’ grand final 17 thanks to Sam Tagataese’s return from injury, Kurt Capewell looks certain to forge a regular spot in an ageing pack.
UNDER PRESSURE: Valentine Holmes has been earmarked for the fullback role since bursting onto the NRL scene in 2014, but the Test winger will be thrust into the vital spot quicker than expected following Barba’s shock exit.
NEEDS TO IMPROVE: Tony Williams rarely produced his best during four seasons at Canterbury, but Cronulla has nevertheless taken a punt on the backrow giant. A first-grade spot is far from guaranteed with the Sharks retaining their entire grand final pack (aside from hooker Ennis), and the former Test forward will find himself playing for the Newtown Jets if his form isn’t up to scratch.
Party finally over for Sharks fans as the club signs Tony Williams to a one-year deal pic.twitter.com/rW6272H4cK
— Sportsbet.com.au (@sportsbetcomau) October 19, 2016
THE COACH: It’s extraordinary to think Shane Flanagan was sitting out a 12-month suspension just two years ago. Taking the beleaguered club from a wooden spoon in his absence to a maiden premiership ranks as one of the great coaching achievements, and his place in Cronulla folklore is assured.
THE DRAW: The champs’ draw is regarded as the fifth-hardest in the NRL, playing the Broncos, Raiders, Storm, Cowboys and Titans twice. They kick off with marquee clashes against Brisbane (H) and Canberra (A). A run of five straight games in the Shire during the Origin period comes with the downside that they play at Gold Coast, Auckland, Brisbane, Townsville and Newcastle during a torrid final eight rounds. Despite their status as premiers, the Sharks have only two Friday games across the first 20 rounds.
LAST FIVE COACHES:
Shane Flanagan (2010-13, 2015-current)
Jamie Shepherd (2014)
Peter Sharp (2014)
Ricky Stuart (2007-10)
Stuart Raper (2004-06)
BEST LINE-UP IN 2017
1 Valentine Holmes
2 Sosaia Feki
3 Ricky Leutele
4 Jack Bird
5 Gerard Beale
6 James Maloney
7 Chad Townsend
8 Andrew Fifita
9 Fa’amanu Brown
10 Matt Prior
11 Wade Graham
12 Luke Lewis
13 Paul Gallen
14 Daniel Mortimer
15 Chris Heighington
16 Sam Tagataese
17 Jayson Bukuya
— Cronulla Sharks FC (@Cronulla_Sharks) October 2, 2016