The performance of Cronulla has caught my eye over the past few weeks. Aside from the Storm, they’re the form side at the moment, with four wins on the trot. And much of that can be put down to a clever recruitment policy.
A lot was made pre-season about the loss of Luke Douglas and Kane Snowden. Yardage and field position is vital this season, and genuine contenders for the premiership need good big men up front to really earn those metres.
The Sharks lost two key players but they brought in a couple of less heralded replacements in Bryce Gibbs and Andrew Fifita. And both have been outstanding for the club.
Frontrow is a tough position to fill with quality players at any club. But coaches Craig Bellamy, Ricky Stuart, and now Shane Flanagan have shown that you don’t necessarily need big names in that position to make an impact.
With their selection and recruitment policies, they’ve shown how effective a cheaper frontrow pair can be. I’m guessing Douglas and Snowden collectively cost around $750,000, whereas Gibbs and Fifita, I’m guessing, have come in at around $400,000.
So the difference of $350,000 allowed them to enter the market for Todd Carney, who became available at just the right time.
You need tough, hard workers who get the job done, and in Bryce Gibbs, you have just that. He’s a smaller stature frontrower, but he works hard out there.
Fifita is more explosive, and therefore, more noticed. His role in getting go-forward for the Sharks has been impressive. But, for me, Gibbs has been the most valuable buy for the club this season.
The other big change at the Sharks has been the addition of the mercurial Todd Carney. While he’s had issues at previous clubs for disciplinary reasons, he seems to have found a home in the Shire and has really added quality in that halfback position.
He’s certainly one of the better halves in the game. He brings that X Factor to the team that keeps opponents guessing and his teammates on their toes.
Combine that with a very tough forward pack, led ably by Paul Gallen and supported by Jeremy Smith and Anthony Tupou, and the experience of veterans like Colin Best, and you have a team that is well balanced and playing confident footy.
The crucial 9,7,1 triangle is forming well at Cronulla, with that combination of players taking advantage of what Gallen and co are doing in the middle of the rucks.
The club have recruited well.
As for the club that Gibbs and Fifita came from, I thought they were false favorites at the outset of the season. The Wests Tigers are a good team and have plenty of great players, but I felt that a few other teams were entitled to be tipped ahead of them.
Robert Lui was a big loss for the club. Tim Moltzen finished off the previous season well, but moving him to halfback and losing Lui has weakened two key positions: 7 and 1.
Then they let some players go to recuit Adam Blair, who is a wonderful player but is used to being in a structured side who use short direct passes, rather than the sideline to sideline approach usually adopted at the Tigers.
Because of his instinctive brilliance, it takes some time to get used to playing with Benji Marshall. So Blair is having to learn how to fit in with the Tigers on-field structure. But don’t give up on him. He is a quality player.
And the same applies for the Tigers, who I’m sure in time will hit form.
Most teams at some stage of the season will have a lull for a few weeks, but once they come out of it, the stronger sides will maintain their intensity and good form for a period of time. So while the competition will remain tight for most of the season, eventually one or two teams will be a standout.
Will it be the Storm and Sharks in 2012? The next few weeks will reveal much more.
Former Dragons coach and player Nathan Brown writes an exclusive weekly column for The Roar. Brown, who played 172 games for the Dragons and coached them for a further 142 games, is currently the head coach at the Huddersfield Giants in the UK Super League.