The NRL might have had a tough off-season as a whole, but the Cronulla Sharks have had the worst of the lot by a considerable distance. While the on-field roster is still strong, there will be a lot to overcome for the men from the Shire in 2019.
When you think of consistency over the last five years in the NRL, the Sharks are right up there. They have had to go through things before as a club, but this might just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
The off-season from hell has seen them lose their coach, have a self-reported salary cap issue which might still cause problems between now and the start of the season and let a mountain of distractions get in the way of a good build-up.
Sure, Paul Gallen reckons the club are still focused on playing footy and succeeding, but turmoil in a competition as close as the NRL is a recipe for disaster.
With their best player departing over the summer and a forward pack getting older, as well as a major injury set to strike down the first half of their season, this might finally be the season the men from the Shire drop out of the eight for the first time since 2014.
Colours: Black, White and Blue
Home grounds: Southern Cross Group Stadium, Cronulla
Minor premierships: 2
Best finish in last five years: 2016 – premiers
2018 finish: Fourth – third week of finals
Coach: John Morris
Captain: Paul Gallen
Paul Gallen (c), Wade Graham (c), Blayke Brailey, Jayden Brailey, Jayson Bukuya, Kurt Capewell, Josh Dugan, Sosaia Feki, Andrew Fifita, Kyle Flanagan, Aaron Gray, Shaun Johnson, Sione Katoa, William Kennedy, Isaac Lumelume, Billy Magoulias, Josh Morris, Matt Moylan, Briton Nikora, Matt Prior, Ava Seumanufagai, Scott Sorensen, Cruz Topai-Aveai, Chad Townsend, Braden Uele, Jack Williams, Aaron Woods, Bronson Xerri
Ins: Shaun Johnson (New Zealand Warriors), Isaac Lumelume (promoted), Billy Magoulias (promoted), Josh Morris (Canterbury Bulldogs), Briton Nikora (promoted)
Outs: Kurt Dillon (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Valentine Holmes (NFL), Edrick Lee (Newcastle Knights), Ricky Leutele (Toronto Wolfpack), Luke Lewis (retirement), Joseph Paulo (St Helens), Jesse Ramien (Newcastle Knights), James Roumanos (Canterbury Bulldogs)
You can’t get into this without addressing the elephant in the room. Valentine Holmes is going to follow Jarryd Hayne and try his hand in the United States of America, trying to win a contract in the NFL.
Good luck to him, but it’s a mighty shame for the NRL. Holmes may well have been in line for a Dally M at the end of 2019 if he kept up the form on display during the second half of 2018, such is the talent of the man.
He is going to be nearly impossible to replace, although the Sharks have tried, bringing in the energetic and explosive Warriors half Shaun Johnson.
He headlines the recruitment drive, which also includes veteran centre Josh Morris. With some depth issues in the outside backs, it’s an important signing for the club.
The rest of their promotions come from promotions out of their development and NSW Cup squad from last year, while the losses from the club are far greater.
The aforementioned depth issues in the outside backs have come about through Edrick Lee, Ricky Leutele and Jesse Ramien losing the club, with all three playing plenty of first grade last year – the loss of Ramien, in particular, being a worry.
Add to all that, Luke Lewis has retired, and there are a heap of big names leaving the club without the replacements to keep the Sharks at the top of the tree.
Obviously, Shaun Johnson comes straight in and goes into the spine, but this is an inconsistent looking one in the key positions.
Johnson was actually quite good last year, but has never hit his true potential for a full season, even though 2018 was actually one of his better ones.
The signing of Johnson clears up that Moylan will play fullback in a team with few other options to play there, but again, he has had issues of going off in big games.
The finals in 2018 are a real reflection of that, where he came up with the goods against Penrith in Week 2, then was shut down and made bad decisions all the way against the Storm in Melbourne.
At hooker is youngster Jayden Brailey who, to this point at least, hasn’t shown any signs of going off the boil, which is a positive for the club, but maybe with some deficiencies up front early this season, he may be tested to a level we haven’t previously seen.
The consistent and proven member of the spine is Chad Townsend, and his role to run the kicking game and keep things together during the tough periods has been more important than ever in 2019.
While he isn’t flashy or the best half in the game, the multi-club veteran is a hard worker, and you know what you’ll get out of him more often than not.
So long as he plays within himself, he is going to be a major asset for the Sharks.
As mentioned, the backline has gone under major change this year. No Ramien, Leutele or Lee in back-up will do that.
Sosaia Feki and Josh Dugan are still there on the wing and at centre respectively, and while Feki has shown some ability, you can be never be quite sure what you’ll get out of Dugan.
Josh Morris will also take a starting spot in Round 1, but he is getting on with age, and while his defence is first-class still, his attack has been lacking in a struggling Canterbury outfit the past two or three years.
Sione Katoa is likely to take the other wing spot, and the powerful winger has a point to prove.
Should there be an injury, anywhere, you can expect a reshuffle and young gun Bronson Xerri to get a run. He has impressed in all the junior levels and could be the next big thing.
The biggest problem for the Sharks forwards is the loss of Wade Graham, who is set to miss the first three months of the season as he recovers from an ACL injury.
Their other problem is that their two most consistent performers – Paul Gallen and Matt Prior – are both getting on in age and could start slowing down.
Andrew Fifita is an x-factor and will start up front alongside Prior, while Bukuya is likely to be joined in the back row by Kurt Capewell until Graham comes back.
Their depth is lacking a little bit, with Scott Sorensen and youngster Jack Williams likely to be on the bench, although Ava Seumanufagai and Aaron Woods give them plenty coming off the pine.
Normally, you’d be inclined to write Wade Graham is just about a lock to play for the Blues, but given he is likely to miss every game before Origin, it’s hard to see him getting selected.
Dugan will probably be in the picture for the Blues, as will Fifita, while if the Sharks are performing, there are sure to be shouts for Aaron Woods and Matt Moylan. Woods is more probable than Moylan, but neither would be in my best 17 for the Blues come Origin time.
Still, the loss of Fifita, in particular, is a big one, even if only for a game, the fatigue following the series is always a big let-down.
Likely best 17
1. Matt Moylan
2. Sione Katoa
3. Josh Dugan
4. Josh Morris
5. Sosaia Feki
6. Shaun Johnson
7. Chad Townsend
8. Andrew Fifita
9. Jayden Brailey
10. Matt Prior
11. Wade Graham (injured, return approx round 12 – Capewell to start, Sorensen added to bench)
12. Jayson Bukuya
13. Paul Gallen
14. Aaron Woods
15. Kurt Capewell
16. Ava Seumanufagai
17. Jack Williams
Will Matt Moylan and Shaun Johnson click?
I’ll say it now – my prediction for Cronulla could be blown out of the water if this clicks.
I wrote an article last year about how Shaun Johnson could become the best player in the game away from the Warriors, and while I don’t think it’s going to happen this year, he has the potential to make other sides hurt.
Johnson has played all these years in a side who have regularly gone off the boil, but if there’s one thing the Sharks do, it’s know how to grind, scrap and defend, so without the need of having to play regular catch-up footy, Johnson could be able to be more selective with what he does and let the football do the talking.
Moylan, who has experience as a half as well, could also have a big year – in fact, he needs to.
While he was far from poor last year, he was in and out of games too much, and did that again when the pressure was on during the finals.
The inconsistency of their two most important players might leave Cronulla reeling in big moments, but this has the potential to be an exciting combination if it works.
As it stood, they had 31 try assists between them last year and were fourth and fifth overall on the list, so they have to be doing something right.
Can they put the distractions behind them?
This is probably the biggest question ahead of the Sharks’ season, and frankly, it doesn’t need a great deal of explaining.
Shane Flanagan is gone, the game’s most exciting youngster Valentine Holmes is gone, the salary cap problems are still there and the club have a lot to do this season.
The loss of Flanagan can’t be talked about enough. He is one of those coaches who have consistently brought the best out of his side, and there is no surprise he was the man to break Cronulla’s premiership duck in 2017 against Melbourne.
John Morris was a solid player, but replacing Flanagan is a huge ask, taking over a club which, off the field, is a rabble.
If the Sharks can put those distractions behind them though – and this is where having a roster with a lot of experience in it will help them – they are every chance of making the top eight.
What will the centre combination do?
While Moylan and Johnson are going to be important, this veteran centre combination of Morris and Dugan are going to have a target on their back – not just from opposition sides, but from Xerri, who will want to force his way into first-grade action.
Dugan, as we know, is one of the best ball-runners in the game. While his passing and creativity leaves a lot to be desired, there was a difference when he was out injured last year.
If he can get back to his best, a combination with Johnson and Moylan could be absolutely damaging.
Morris, on the other side of the field, is still one of the best defenders in the game. He has shut down Greg Inglis at Origin level, and while he is getting on in age, this is a man who needs a big season for Cronulla to succeed.
A new lease on life away from the Bulldogs might allow him to do just that.
|Round no.||Date||Time (AEDT)||Opponent||Venue||TV|
|1||Fri Mar 15||6:00pm||Newcastle Knights||McDonald Jones Stadium||Fox|
|2||Sat Mar 23||3:00pm||Gold Coast Titans||Shark Park||Fox|
|3||Sat Mar 30||5:30pm||North Queensland Cowboys||1300 Smiles Stadium||Fox|
|4||Sat Apr 6||7:35pm||Parramatta Eels||ANZ Stadium||Fox|
|5||Sat Apr 13||7:35pm||Sydney Roosters||Shark Park||Fox|
|6||Thu Apr 18||7:55pm||Penrith Panthers||Shark Park||Nine/Fox|
|7||Sat Apr 27||7:35pm||Brisbane Broncos||Suncorp Stadium||Fox|
|8||Fri May 3||7:55pm||Melbourne Storm||Shark Park||Nine/Fox|
|9||Thu May 9||7:50pm||Gold Coast Titans||Suncorp Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|10||Sun May 19||4:05pm||Manly Sea Eagles||Shark Park||Nine/Fox|
|11||Sun May 26||4:05pm||St George Illawarra Dragons||WIN Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|13||Sat Jun 8||5:30pm||Parramatta Eels||Shark Park||Fox|
|14||Thu Jun 13||7:50pm||Canberra Raiders||GIO Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|15||Sun Jun 30||4:05pm||Canterbury Bulldogs||ANZ Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|16||Sun Jul 7||4:05pm||Brisbane Broncos||Shark Park||Nine/Fox|
|17||Sat Jul 13||7:35pm||Melbourne Storm||AAMI Park||Fox|
|18||Fri Jul 19||6pm||New Zealand Warriors||Westpac Stadium||Fox|
|19||Thu Jul 25||7:50pm||North Queensland Cowboys||Shark Park||Nine/Fox|
|20||Sat Aug 3||7:35pm||South Sydney Rabbitohs||Shark Park||Fox|
|21||Thu Aug 9||7:55pm||Penrith Panthers||Panthers Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|22||Sun Aug 18||4:05pm||St George Illawarra Dragons||Shark Park||Nine/Fox|
|23||Sat Aug 24||3pm||New Zealand Warriors||Shark Park||Fox|
|24||Sun Sep 1||2pm||Canberra Raiders||Shark Park||Fox|
|25||Sun Sep 8||2pm||Wests Tigers||Leichhardt Oval||Fox|
The quick breakdown
Teams to play twice: Gold Coast Titans, North Queensland Cowboys, Parramatta Eels, Brisbane Broncos, Melbourne Storm, St George Illawarra Dragons, Canberra Raiders, New Zealand Warriors, Penrith Panthers
Best home run: Round 19 – Round 24 (5 out of 6)
Worst away run: Round 14 – Round 18 (4 out of 5)
Five-day turnarounds: 3
The Sharks fixture is far from simple. Their double-up teams include five teams who finished alongside them in the top eight last season, while the Titans and Cowboys from outside the eight are expected to have much-improved seasons.
They do have the Raiders and Eels, but with the unpredictability of the Warriors, the Storm, Dragons, Broncos and Panthers, they won’t have as many easy games as they might like.
They also have a very tough stretch on the road throughout the Origin period, which is the one part of the year you really don’t want to be travelling. That stretch of four games away in five rounds is capped off by back-to-back trips to Melbourne and Wellington.
They do, however, play five of their next six at home in the run to the finals and while they have some tough opponents, the home ground advantage is very real for Cronulla, so if they are on the cusp of the eight with seven rounds to go, expect them to end up in there.
In fact, they have won 25 of their last 36 regular season games at home.
Trips to Newcastle and Townsville inside the first three weeks will also give us an idea exactly where the Sharks are at, and with that tough road trip in the middle, they need a strong start.
Unfortunately, there is just too much going on off the field for the Sharks to be at the level they have been previously. The injury of Wade Graham for the first half of the season is something of a killer blow, and their pack is getting older, with the premiership window appearing all but over.
Valentine Holmes loss is a big one, and while Johnson is a good signing and has the potential to be the best player in the game if he can be consistent, it seems all a stretch, and like too much has to go right for them to be finishing in the top eight, let alone the top four again.
It wouldn’t surprise me to see the Sharks grind out some wins, but they just won’t be able to do it consistently enough, and will miss the top eight for the first time since they won the spoon in 2014.
Be sure to tune back in on Wednesday as we move another spot up the ladder.