The Roar
The Roar


Cronulla Sharks 2016 NRL season preview

Paul Gallen has been one of the stand-out players of the year to date. (AAP Image/Action Photographics, Brett Crockford)
Roar Guru
4th January, 2016
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The Cronulla Sharks head into 2016 hoping to secure their first premiership, as they celebrate their golden jubilee year in top-flight rugby league.

With Paul Gallen close to retirement, Cronulla will be hungry to send their captain out a winner in his 17th season at the club.

The upcoming season is expected to be the Sharks’ biggest premiership push, with great recruitment seeing James Maloney, Joseph Paulo, Jesse Sene-Lefao and Matt McIlwrick all head to the Shire, with Chad Townsend returning after a two-year stint with the Warriors.

With so many talented young players and a plethora of experienced veterans, the Sharks will be a huge threat in 2016.

Rookie watch
Cronulla have a host of young rookies joining the club and a few of older ones as well.

Ipswich duo Kurt Capewell and Josh Cleeland have headed south after leading the Jets to their first title since their foundation in 1982.

Capewell is a former Broncos and Roosters Under-20s star, and the 22-year-old was a hidden gem in last year’s Queensland Cup. Cleeland meanwhile is 24 years of age, however he took an alternative route, choosing not to go through the Holden Cup but rather use just the Queensland Cup as a vehicle to stardom.

Anthony Moraitis has been promoted to the full-time NRL squad, alongside Jayden Brailey. Both appeared in last year’s Holden Cup, having come through the Sharks’ junior system. Brisbane Broncos recruit Jordan Drew also graduates from the NYC, although he has already played one NRL game – in 2013, when he scored a try on debut against the Dragons.


Dragons NYC recruit Bessie Aufaga-Toomaga is an outside back with plenty of size, is a try-scoring machine, and can also convert goals. Jack Rogers – the son of Mat Rogers and grandson of Sharks legend Steve – joins the NYC squad, having been signed in June this year and playing two games to score three tries.

With so many talented youngster on their books, the future looks bright for Cronulla.

Under pressure
Ben Barba is in serious trouble of losing his spot at the Sharks.

With Valentine Holmes keeping him from his fullback spot, and James Maloney and Chad Townsend in the halves, the 2012 Dally M Medallist is under pressure.

The former Bulldog and Bronco can’t keep the likes of Sene-Lefao and David Fifita in reserve grade for long, and faces a challenge from Joseph Paulo for the utility spot.

Unfortunately for Barba, there is not enough space on the Sharks bench, and too much talent in both the backline and halves.

If he hopes to continue his rugby league career, he must find the form that saw him touted as the hottest young talent in rugby league.


Can the Sharks end their premiership drought?
After half a century of heartache, the Sharks finally have a roster – featuring the perfect mix of experienced players and youth – capable of bringing a first Provan-Summons Trophy to the Shire.

The squad’s inexperience however will be a disadvantage – just five players have laced-up for a grand final, and only Chris Heighington (2005), James Maloney (2013) and Luke Lewis (2003) have a premiership ring.

But, as the Cowboys and Rabbitohs proved recently, you don’t need grand final experience to win a premiership.

Who will wear the Sharks Number 1 jersey?
Jack Bird, Holmes and Barba will all be competing for the fullback role vacated by the Eels-bound Michael Gordon.

All three candidates have plenty to offer: Barba won the 2012 Dally M Award playing in the position, Holmes is one of the best rookies in the NRL and fullback is his preferred position, while Bird is looking for a spot in the backline to call home after new recruit Maloney took his five-eighth position.

Holmes is the favourite, and if the North Queensland junior plays well during the Auckland Nines and in trials against Manly and Wests Tigers, he will start Round 1 as the Sharks custodian (barring injury or suspension).

Barba is second in line, and will look to the Nines and All Stars games to prove his worthiness of playing in the starting side. If he fails to secure the jersey, the Mackay junior will be forced to come off the bench and possibly leave the Shire by the end of the season.


Bird is the outsider and should only receive the jersey if Flanagan feels it would be best for Holmes to play in the centres or on the wing. Last season, Bird – a centre or second rower – proved he was one of the most versatile players in the NRL by plying his trade at five-eighth. A move to fullback would suit, but it appears he will play 2016 in the centres.

Jack Bird of the Sharks

Is Paul Gallen on his last legs?
Gallen will be 35 at the end of the season and with regular injuries over recent years, 2016 may be his last year playing in the National Rugby League, with a Super League move in 2017 on the agenda.

Struggling to stay on the field recently, Gallen has undergone his first pre-season training before the Christmas break since 2007, putting him in good stead for the upcoming season.

The question is whether the extended training will cause burnout, leading to either his retirement, departure to Super League, or even a full-time switch to boxing.

The New South Wales Blues captain is expected to make a decision on his future by Round 13.

Must watch


Round 1 versus Cowboys
Saturday, March 5, 7:30pm at 1300Smiles Stadium

The Sharks have the toughest start to the season any team could ask for, playing the reigning premiers in the searing Townsville heat.

The new additions to Flanagan’s side, as well as the younger players, will be tested against some of the best in the league. Maloney and Townsend will be asked to step up against Michael Morgan and four-time Dally M Medallist Johnathan Thurston, while established veteran Heighington will be required to face off against one of the best props in the game, Matthew Scott.

Cronulla’s season opener will set the tone for their 2016. If they put in a good performance and win – or even lose after putting in a worthy display – it should inspire the side for the remaining 25 rounds. If they struggle in the heat and their new recruits don’t mix well, they could be in for yet another long season.

Round 19 versus Roosters
Monday, July 18, 7pm at Allianz Stadium

Maloney has plenty of time to prepare to face his former team in Round 19, in a game that shapes as important for Cronulla’s finals campaign, with the fixture just eight weeks out from the end of the regular season.

Their will be plenty of talent on the field, with the Roosters boasting the likes of Joe Burgess, Michael Jennings, Shaun Kenny-Dowall, Jackson Hastings, Mitchell Pearce, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Jake Friend, Kane Evans, Dylan Napa, Boyd Cordner, Aidan Guerra and Sio Siua Taukeiaho – a tough ask for any team.


Predicted best XVII
1. Valentine Holmes, 2. Sosaia Feki, 3. Jack Bird, 4. Ricky Leutele, 5. Gerard Beale, 6. James Maloney, 7. Chad Townsend, 8. Chris Heighington, 9. Michael Ennis, 10. Sam Tagataese, 11. Luke Lewis, 12. Wade Graham, 13. Paul Gallen
Interchange: 14. Ben Barba, 15. Jayson Bukuya, 16. Andrew Fifita, 17. Joseph Paulo

2016 signings
Kurt Capewell (Ipswich Jets), Josh Cleeland (Ipswich Jets), Jordan Drew (Brisbane Broncos), James Maloney (Sydney Roosters), Matt McIlwrick (Sydney Roosters), Joseph Paulo (Parramatta Eels), Jesse Sene-Lefao (Manly Sea Eagles), Chad Townsend (Vodafone Warriors)

2016 draw (AEST)
Round 1: Cowboys versus Sharks (Saturday, March 5, 7:30pm at 1300Smiles Stadium)
Round 2: Sharks versus Dragons (Sunday, March 13, 4pm at Shark Park)
Round 3: Sea Eagles versus Sharks (Monday, March 21, 7pm at Brookvale Oval)
Round 4: Sharks versus Storm (Monday, March 28, 7pm at Shark Park)
Round 5: Wests Tigers versus Sharks (Saturday, April 2, 5:30pm at Campbelltown Stadium)
Round 6: Sharks versus Titans (Sunday, April 10, 2pm at Shark Park)
Round 7: Raiders versus Sharks (Sunday, April 17, 2pm at GIO Stadium)
Round 8: Sharks versus Panthers (Sunday, April 24, 4pm at Shark Park)
Round 9: Sharks versus Broncos (Sunday, May 1, 4pm at Shark Park)
Round 10: Knights versus Sharks (Sunday, May 15, 2pm at Hunter Stadium)
Round 11: Sharks versus Sea Eagles (Saturday, May 21, 7:30pm at Shark Park)
Round 12: Bye
Round 13: Bulldogs versus Sharks (Monday, June 6, 7pm at ANZ Stadium)
Round 14: Sharks versus Cowboys (Monday, June 13, 7pm at Shark Park)
Round 15: Bye
Round 16: Sharks versus Warriors (Saturday, June 25, 5:30pm at Shark Park)
Round 17: Sharks versus Eels (Saturday, July 2, 7:30pm at Shark Park)
Round 18: Panthers versus Sharks (Sunday, July 10, 4pm at Pepper Stadium)
Round 19: Roosters versus Sharks (Monday, July 18, 7pm at Allianz Stadium)
Round 20: Sharks versus Knights (Sunday, July 24, 2pm at Shark Park)
Round 21: Titans versus Sharks (July 28-August 1 at Cbus Super Stadium)
Round 22: Sharks versus Raiders (August 4-August 8 at Shark Park)
Round 23: Dragons versus Sharks (August 11-August 15 at Jubilee Oval)
Round 24: Rabbitohs versus Sharks (August 18-August 22 at ANZ Stadium)
Round 25: Sharks versus Roosters (August 25-August 29 at Shark Park)
Round 26: Storm versus Sharks (September 1-September 4 at AAMI Park)

The Sharks will be a premiership heavyweight but their lack of finals experience will see them falter in the dying stages.

After finishing fourth in the regular season, Cronulla will record consecutive losses for a Week 2 finals exit.