It all started six months ago, when the Cronulla Sharks finally won the NRL rugby league premiership at after 49 years of trying.
The midweek Amco Cup trophy was all that was in the Sharks’ top grade trophy cabinet before then. Runners-up three times – in 1973, 1978 and 1997 – was the closest the Sharks came to winning the NRL premiership, and unfortunately you don’t win a trophy for finishing second.
But everything changed on the evening of October 2, 2016, at ANZ Stadium.
The saying that ‘there’s always next season’, which had been uttered by Sharks fans for 48 previous frustrating seasons, was finally no more.
After leaving the Sharks during the 1980s, legendary coach Jack Gibson infamously said, “Waiting for Cronulla to win a premiership is like leaving the porch lamp on for Harold Holt”.
But the impossible did happen, and everyone in the Shire was ecstatic about the premiership win.
Enter premiership-winning coach and Channel Nine commentator Phil ‘Gus’ Gould, who decided to give the Sharks a reality check with his sobering assessment of their premiership win.
Despite winning 15-straight premiership matches during 2016, the Sharks were “soft” premiers, Gould said on his Six Tackles with Gus podcast.
Six Sharks players represented New South Wales in State of Origin and three represented the Australian Kangaroos last season, but that mattered little to Gould.
The Sharks beat the Canberra Raiders during week one of the finals and then demolished the 2015 premiers, the North Queensland Cowboys, in the qualifying final. They won the grand final beating the Melbourne Storm 14-12 as deserved NRL premiers. Gould remained unconvinced.
Gould reasoned further that the Roosters and Sea Eagles, traditional NRL powerhouses, weren’t there at the death due to indifferent early season form and due to other teams being tired towards the end of last season, despite there being no Four Nations tournament the previous year.
It didn’t matter one iota to Gould that the North Queensland Cowboys and perennial semi-finalists Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, Brisbane Broncos and Melbourne Storm were all there during the finals series.
Gould is coaching coordinator at the Penrith Panthers, who were eliminated in the second week of the finals, and one wonders how he would have viewed a Panthers victory.
Sharks coach Shane Flanagan wondered as much, telling the Sydney Morning Herald, “I am filthy with Gus saying we won a soft competition.
“You could find 100 takes from Gus during the year about how tough this competition is. When the Panthers were playing the Bulldogs at the SFS he was saying ‘what a great competition’ and ‘it’s the hardest competition in the world’.
“All of a sudden the Panthers get rissoled and it’s the weakest comp in the world. I thought it was poor form.”
Does Gus have an agenda against the Sharks? As a journalism student, I tried to get to the bottom of it.
I tweeted Gus: “Just asking @Gus10Gould was Roosters title soft-due to Bulldogs demise 2002?”
A response was quickly forthcoming from the Panthers coaching coordinator: “Indeed. Goes to show some competitions are more competitive than others. I said as much at the time. What’s your point?”
Well at least Gould with his “indeed” comment indicated his own 2002 Roosters were also “soft” premiers due to the demise of the competition frontrunners, the Bulldogs, on account of salary cap issues that year.
Other than his tweet answering my question, there is no further evidence of his own Roosters winning a “soft competition”, and he didn’t elaborate further.
Gould’s comments may prove to be prophetic indeed, but not in the way he would have liked. He gave the Sharks plenty of ammunition, and if they were in a hangover phase this year, that has now passed.
The challenge now is to stay healthy with minimal injuries to overcome the World Club Challenge curse and around-the-world travel associated with that.
Last year, the Sharks asked “Why not us?”. They should ask that same question again in 2017.
If they do manage to win back-to-back premierships for the first time since the Brisbane Broncos in 1992-93, they may invite Gould into the changerooms to celebrate their win – which would make Gus’s podcast its own larger-than-life story sufficient to win his way into Sharks history in the same way Holt and Gibson did.
Big Jack would have a wry smile on his face as Gould joins him and Holt in Cronulla folklore if the Sharks once again sing their victory song Up, Up Cronulla after another grand final victory. You heard it here first.