Season 2014 will be remembered as a train wreck for the Cronulla Sharks.
The writing was on the wall when it was announced last December that head coach Shane Flanagan was to be suspended for twelve months, in addition to the club being fined $1 million in the wake of their controversial 2011 supplements program.
So it was no surprise season 2014 was a disaster for the Sharks.
The ASADA investigation continued to cloud the club and cause a psychological effect on the players. It ultimately resulted in the boys from the Shire picking up their first wooden spoon since 1969.
So where did it all go wrong for the Sharks this year?
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Final ladder position: 16th (5 wins, 19 losses, -279 differential)
What went right?
There were a few highlights to take out of this train wreck, such as the consecutive comebacks against the Broncos and Roosters, and their skipper Paul Gallen becoming the first New South Wales captain since Danny Buderus in 2005 to lift the State of Origin shield.
What went wrong?
Just about everything. From the twelve-month suspension of Shane Flanagan, to the sacking of Todd Carney after a photo of him performing a lewd act in the toilet was leaked onto Twitter.
On the field, the Sharks won just five games all year and had the worst attack in the competition, despite boasting NSW Origin representatives Paul Gallen and Andrew Fifita, as well as Jeff Robson, who helped Parramatta reach the 2009 grand final.
The club failed to score a single point between their Round 10 loss to the Wests Tigers and their comeback victory over the Brisbane Broncos in Round 16, being shut out by the Rabbitohs, Dragons and Sea Eagles in the interim.
Caretaker coach Peter Sharp left his post midway through the year, believing he was an impediment to the club’s chances of avoiding the wooden spoon. Under-20s coach James Shepherd eventually replaced him.
With a long season taking its toll, the Sharks then lost their last six matches to crash to their first wooden spoon since 1969, a backdated suspension handed to Gallen by ASADA not helping their cause.
The Sharks at least had a supporter at League HQ, with NRL chief operating officer Jim Doyle saying it was “completely unacceptable” that the ongoing saga had contributed to the demise of the Sharks on the field.
Best win: Defeated the Sydney Roosters 30-28 at Allianz Stadium in Round 17
The Sharks might have ended their point-scoring hoodoo in their comeback victory over the Brisbane Broncos the previous week, but the effort against reigning premiers the Sydney Roosters has got to rank as one of the club’s best ever victories.
The club entered the match on the back of a horror week which saw Todd Carney sacked over that infamous lewd photo which found its way onto Twitter and Peter Sharp resigning as caretaker coach.
It was thought by many that the Chooks would enjoy a cakewalk victory, and all appeared on track when they led 24-0 deep in the second half. However, the boys from the Shire dug deep, and by fulltime had completed the season’s biggest boilover, winning 30-28.
It would be the first time since 2005 that the wooden spooner defeated the minor premier during the regular season (not including 2010 when the Melbourne Storm finished last as punishment for salary cap breaches).
On that occasion, the Newcastle Knights upset the Parramatta Eels 16-10 on their home turf in 2005, this coming six weeks after the Eels had scored a 50-0 win over the locals in Newcastle.
Worst loss: To the Melbourne Storm 48-6 at AAMI Park in Round 23
The ASADA investigation clouded the club since March last year and many of the players suffered as a result of it.
This contributed to many uncompetitive performances during the year, in particular losses by 30 points or more against the Canterbury Bulldogs, Newcastle Knights, St George Illawarra Dragons and Melbourne Storm.
The loss to the Storm marked their worst marginal defeat for the year, with the Sharks being unable to score in the first half as a Storm side reeling from a narrow loss to Newcastle the previous week put the side to the sword at AAMI Park.
It also exposed the gulf between the real strugglers of the competition and a well-established side which also had their own share of drama when they were stripped of two premierships for salary cap breaches in 2010.
After such a horrific season full of dispirited performances, injuries, retirements and the ASADA-enforced suspensions of the 2011 squad scattered across the rest of the NRL, the Sharks will be hoping for a much better season on the field in 2015.
Shane Flanagan is expected to resume normal duties next year, with James Shepherd to revert back to his role as under-20s coach.
The club will be boosted by the signing of Bulldogs captain Michael Ennis, who has been signed as a direct replacement for Michael Lichaa, who has headed to Belmore.
The acquisition of Ennis should also provide the Sharks with a secondary leader to Paul Gallen; the former NSW hooker can act as the captain when Gallen is out.
After their season from hell in 2014, it will be interesting to see if the Sharks can recover from this train wreck and field a more competitive side in the years to come.
Fans must, however, remember that not even the arrival of Michael Ennis will help to reverse the club’s on-and-off field fortunes.