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After a horror season that ended with them ‘winning’ the dreaded wooden spoon, the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks will be looking to turn it around in 2015.
With only one club having gone from last place to premiers, the Western Suburbs side of 1934, history would suggest that is a bridge too far.
But there are recent examples of sides climbing up the ladder from the bottom and that will give Sharks fans hope. Examples include the Bulldogs going from the spoon in 2008 to the preliminary final in 2009, and the Roosters going from the spoon in 2009 all the way to the grand final in 2010.
Will the Sharks be able to turn it around and make the finals in season 2015? It would be an incredible achievement if they were to do so, and here are six reasons why I think they will.
Conclusion of the ASADA drama
We’ve all been over the details and the debate of the punishment a million times, so I won’t go into it here. Irrespective of how you feel about it, the bottom line is that it is over.
No doubt the issue will be raised in coming years in pub discussions, on internet forums, and with fans yelling abuse at games, but the Sharks have paid the penalty imposed on the club, coach, and players and they can now put it behind them and move forward.
The removal of this burden alone is an immense positive for a club that has been trying to perform on the field for the last two seasons with a huge, dark cloud hanging over them.
Having Flanagan back at the helm is a huge plus that cannot be underestimated, having guided the side to the finals in 2012 and 2013 and being responsible for some key signings.
There is a fresh air of hope and cautious optimism across Shark Park, backed up by finishing runners up at the nines, and while hope and optimism don’t win you premierships it gives a team the confidence that can often prove to be the difference in helping to get off to a good start to notch up some early wins and get the season on a roll.
If Paul Gallen, Andrew Fifita, Luke Lewis, and Wade Graham are all fit and on the park together, they form one of the more formidable forward packs in the competition.
Gallen is off contract at the end of the year and has stated he would like to go around for another. He is in the twilight of his career and when he is on the park will be giving it everything to secure victory, imploring his teammates to do the same through not only his words but more importantly his actions, which is sure to inspire in those close games.
It remains to be seen if Gallen and Lewis again, in the eyes of many Sharks fans, sacrifice club for state and miss games due to being in Origin camp, injuries from Origin, or through a niggling injury they want to get right for Origin.
In two seasons Lewis has only played 28 games for the Sharks, including just eight in 2014, while Gallen has only played 25 over the same period, including only nine in 2014. Both will need to make more appearances for the Sharks to make the eight.
Fifita battled repeated injuries in 2014 and only made twelve appearances, but showed in 2013 that he is one of the most talented and damaging props in the game. He will be looking to bounce back to his best.
Wade Graham continues to improve, mixing strong running with playmaking ability on the fringes, and some judges see him as a smoky for Origin in the next couple of years. Michael Gordon has been somewhat of a rock for the Sharks at the back over the last couple of years, and despite a few off games has been their most consistent player over that period.
He should benefit from the added talent alongside him and needing to perform well to ensure he keeps his spot from Valentine Holmes. Throw in the hard-working and reliable Chris Heighington, a player that would get a run on start at many NRL sides but who will likely be forced to start the season from the bench, no doubt itching to get on and prove his worth.
Aside from the big name addition of Ben Barba, the Sharks have recruited shrewdly for season 2015, in particular strengthening and adding depth to a backline that, while showing glimpses of potential last year before Carney’s exit, has largely been impotent in recent seasons.
The addition of New Zealand international Gerard Beale, hampered by injuries while at the Dragons, gives the Sharks a proven try scorer. Junior Kangaroo and NSW under-20s Origin representative Jack Bird stated his desire to play in the backs, and in the Nine’s displayed speed and strength that suggest he may be up the challenge of the NRL.
The dependable Mitch Brown returns to the Sharks to add pressure to the likely starting duo of Beale and Ricky Leutele, while Blake Ayshford might have turned the corner after a horror season to also put his hand up for a spot out wide. He was brilliant in the Nines and if the Sharks had gone all the way would have been close to player of the tournament.
Jayson Bukuya also returns to the Sharks to add experience and quality bench support for the forwards.
Despite turning thirty-one this year Michael Ennis still has plenty to offer, as shown last year where he had a stellar season and led the Dogs to the grand final.
He will provide invaluable leadership to the squad, mentoring to young players, and will ease the pressure on Gal with the support only a player with captaincy and big game experience can provide.
While injury has ruled up and coming half Nu Brown out for the season, in the Four Nations Kyle Stanley played well at halfback for a Samoan side that nearly upset New Zealand and England.
There is also Todd Murphy in the ranks, who was one of the best players in the Queensland Cup in 2014, finishing a narrow runner-up in the Courier-Mail Medal (the Dally M equivalent) and was impressive in the Nines.
And then there is Barba. Along with some of the backrowers Flanagan has indicated will have a hand in servicing the outside backs, he is the key to igniting the Sharks attack. He showed some smooth ball handling in the All Stars game, and if his running game can get going he will make breaks, get the defence guessing, and open up opportunities for the speed men outside him.
Young guns on the rise
Touted as a future star, Valentine Holmes has played for Queensland in their under 18s (2013) and under 20s (2014) teams.
After knocking back approaches from New Zealand, in October 2014 he represented the Junior Kangaroos, scoring two tries in a 15-14 loss to the Junior Kiwis. He debuted for the Sharks NRL side in 2014, justifying his selection with three tries from six games.
Flanagan has already indicated Holmes may get some time at fullback as in 2014, rotating with Gordon from the wing in a similar manner to Minichiello and Tuivasa-Sheck at the Roosters last year.
Rickey Leutele has started to form a strong combination on the left side with Sosaia Feki, who had an outstanding year in 2014 capped off with a call up to the Kiwi squad for the Four Nations. Jacob Gagan also showed in his appearances last year that he is an outside back with enormous potential, scoring five tries in seven outings.
Front office and financial security
Despite the misinformation widely promoted, with the Woolooware Bay development going ahead the Sharks are in a good position moving forward with long term financial viability all but ensured.
With over 400 residential apartments already sold from the first two stages off the plan and the first sod being turned in November 2014, forecasts late last year estimated that over the next seven years the club would be entitled to a share of over $40 million from the entire development.
This would surely make them one of the wealthier clubs in the NRL.
And while Lyall Gorman cannot take to the field, he can ensure the front office is in order, drawing upon his vast experience running the A-League, the Central Coast Mariners, and helping to launch the Western Sydney Wanderers.
Even before Gorman arrived, the Sharks had to satisfy the NRL that they had overhauled their structures and processes to ensure good corporate governance, Gorman will only strengthen that.
For some clubs, the board can be a rabble and not impact the playing group’s results, such as at Manly, but as history has shown there is no doubt that having a stable board and experienced people running the club means less distractions for the players and more chance of on-field success.
The Titans are currently unbackable favourites to take out the wooden spoon, so that’s one team out of the equation. Based on recent seasons, to qualify for the eight the Sharks will need at least twelve wins, thirteen to avoid a potential for and against battle.
They will need to win against last year’s bottom eight most of the time, and jag a couple of upsets against the top teams.
Last year, totally understrength, they managed a couple of remarkable upset victories against the Roosters and Broncos, beat the Panthers in both encounters, and in Round 25 at the end of a long, arduous season, when you could forgive them for not putting in one-hundred per cent, they only just lost to the Cowboys courtesy of golden point.
I would suggest this shows some ticker and potential that, complimented with the points discussed above, shows they can get the required wins.
Three of their first four games are at home against the Raiders, Brisbane, and the Titans. With a fully fit and firing squad, they can win all three and get them off to a flyer.
They’ll need it, because in the seven games between Round 15 and Round 21 they have only the one home game (Dragons). Out of the games after Round 4, I think they should also be able to beat the Knights (home), Warriors (home), Titans (away), Dragons (home and away), Canberra (away), Cowboys (home), Tigers (home), Eels (away).
To be certain of making the finals, or if they lose one of the above, they’ll need a couple of upset victories and I think their best chances will be against Penrith (away), Dogs (away), and Storm (home).
With their first game against a Raiders side that I believe is being underestimated and will cause a few upsets this year, I think the Sharks will start the season well with a close win, and then go on to get enough wins over the season to just scrape into the top eight in seventh or eighth position.
What do you think Roarers, will the Sharks be playing footy come September this year?