Everyone loves a fairytale right? And at the moment, there is no greater fairytale in rugby league than that of the Cronulla Sharks.
With their win over the Newcastle Knights on Sunday afternoon in front of 16,882 fans at Southern Cross Group Stadium, the Cronulla Sharks made it a record-breaking 15 wins in a row and are one step closer to the most sought after prize in rugby league – a premiership.
In the Sharks 49-year history, it is a prize that has never found its way down to the Shire. Could 2016 be their year to dust out the trophy cabinet?
The opposite of a fairy tale in rugby league is a nightmare and 2016 has seen Parramatta Eels fans caught in what seems to be a recurring one. With the Eels loss to the Titans on Saturday night, the hope of playing finals football is now officially over (it is not even a mathematical possibly anymore). At the conclusion of Round 26, the curtain will fall on what has undeniably been one of the worst years in the club’s 69-year history.
A smattering of some of the issues which Eels fans have opened the papers to in 2016 has included breaches of the salary cap dating back to 2013 resulting in loss of competition points, a hefty fine and the stripping of the 2016 Auckland Nines Title, a board who was intent on waging a war with the NRL that it was never going to win, the release of a sex tape featuring Corey Norman, the very real and documented mental health issues of Kieran Foran who has since walked away from the club, rumours about Semi Radradra and a potential shift to French rugby and the loss of Nathan Peats. The cherry on top – the appointment of an administrator last week to provide some stability at the befuddled club.
So what do the two clubs have to do with each other? I am hopeful that the story of the Sharks can provide some much needed inspiration to those at the Eels and demonstrate what is possible.
Two years ago the Sharks were at the lowest of the low – and not just on the ladder. In the midst of an ASADA scandal which cost the club almost $5 million in legal fees, coach Shane Flanagan was banned from the game for a year for his part in the banned substances scandal and irreparable damage done to the reputations of several players, it looked unlikely that the Sharks would even survive the turmoil.
But survive they did and now, led by Paul Gallen and a host of other players including Michael Ennis, Ben Barba, Valentine Holmes, Jack Bird and Luke Lewis, in the space of two years the Sharks have gone from a rabble to genuine Premiership contenders.
This transformation demonstrates the change that can take place at a rugby league club in a very short space of time. I look to the Sharks as a sort of blueprint and hope that now, following the appointment of an administrator at the Eels, the club can begin working towards emulating the success that the Sharks have had, both on and off the field.
Of course there are plenty of moving pieces which contribute to success. For the Sharks, the appointment of a well-balanced board with a genuine mix of business acumen and an understanding of sport has been vital.
This is something that the Eels now genuinely have the opportunity to work toward and finally put the days of factionalism and bickering at a board level in the past, where they belong. A board with a diverse mix of people with the relevant experience will be a welcome change at the club. Rest assured, if this is not achieved, the nightmares of 2016 will inevitably continue.
When I look to the Sharks, however, a couple of other things stand out.
Firstly, coach Shane Flanagan. It has been well documented that when the new board was appointed at the Sharks, that this board was under considerable pressure to get rid of Flanagan. This was a coach under fire and the easy option would have been to punt him. The club showed a tremendous amount of faith by that board to extend the contract of Flanagan and to stick by a coach under siege. In my view, it has paid off.
While Brad Arthur might not personally be a coach that is under siege, it seems that he is under siege from external forces. Similar to Flanagan, I truly believe that Arthur has the ability to galvanise his playing group. You only have to look at what the Eels have achieved on the field as evidence of this.
Say what you will about the Parramatta Eels off the field, but it has truly been remarkable how up until this point of the season, despite all the distractions off the field, the team has managed to continue to turn up and compete on the football field. This is an ability the Eels used to lack in the past, even when everything was going right.
While the Eels have now lost two in a row, this seems to be the result of the season finally catching up to them, including a string of injuries. You would be hard pressed to find a person in Australia who will have been unimpressed at what the Eels have managed to do on the field this year. In fact, most people seem to be in disbelief that the team has been turning up at all.
The stability that Brad Arthur has been able to provide for the squad and the club’s fans cannot be underestimated and if the Eels are to begin moving forward next year, Brad Arthur must be at the centre of forward planning along with a core group of players which will hopefully include the likes of Clint Gutherson, Bevan French, Manu Ma’u, Kaysa Pritchard and Corey Norman.
So to Eels fans, I encourage you to be brave enough to dream about what is truly possible. The Sharks have shown the way. So while Sharks fans might have the joy of singing Up up Cronulla come week one of October this year, my hope is that you’ll hear Parramatta fans cheering ‘we raise our voices to the sky and glorify the Eels’ come week one of October in 2018.
This is @mary__kaye from @ladieswholeague