The Cronulla Sharks fullback’s mullet is no more, but for a very good cause.
At the commencement of the 2019 NRL season, a lot of the experts’ top eight predictions didn’t mention the Sharks.
There was good reason for this. From the Sharks side who reached the preliminary final in 2018, missing were Val Holmes, Luke Lewis, Jesse Ramien, Ricky Leutele and Edrick Lee.
On top of that, the side would be without Wade Graham for the first half of the season. Without Graham, the Sharks’ left edge would lose the focal point of their attack.
The Sharks are only three and three after six rounds of the competition. Hardly stuff to write home about. However, it’s the way that they have registered the three wins that has put the rest of the competition on notice.
The Sharks are notoriously slow starters. At this stage last year, the Sharks were two wins and four losses. This year has been little different.
Over the first 480 mins of action, Cronulla have probably been at their best for only 80 mins, being the second half against the Cowboys and the second half against Penrith. Those 80 mins featured flawless football. The combined score over those 80 mins was 60-12.
At full strength, with Shaun Johnson, Matt Moylan and Wade Graham all in the line up, the Sharks should have the artillery to put sides away.
With all three spending time on the sidelines so far this season, we haven’t seen this combination as yet. Against the Roosters, none of them played. However, Sharks fans will be hoping they see plenty of the trio in the second half of the season.
Against the Panthers, Shaun Johnson did it largely by himself with the other two watching from the sidelines, all in the second half, although it should be said Chad Townsend’s organising skills has given Johnson some free rein.
Rather than running the ball himself, Johnson and Briton Nikora have formed a lethal combination on the right edge while his cut out pass to Bronson Xerri set up Josh Dugan’s match-winning try. Three or four moments of brilliance from Johnson was enough to swing the game.
It was the same with Johnson and Moylan clicking into gear in the second half against the Cowboys, before Moylan went down with a hamstring injury that has kept him out ever since.
The other thing getting Sharks fans excited is the young players coming through the system. Junior competition wins over the last few years and a NSW Cup grand final last year promised much. With a number of senior players nursing long-term injuries, youth has taken a further step forward this year.
Briton Nikora had wraps on him beforehand but his integration into first grade has been seamless. His combination with Johnson has been first class and left hand edge defences are always in two minds.
It doesn’t make it easier for these defences that Bronson Xerri now sits outside Nikora. Xerri has shown us enough in his first three games to confirm that he will be playing first grade for a long time.
Blayke Brailey has also shown plenty when coming on late in games to replace his brother Jayden. John Morris needs to find a way to keep both of them on the field for longer periods of time, with possibly Jayden spending some time at lock and Paul Gallen moving to prop.
Braden Hamlin-Uele, although originally from North Queensland, played his fourth game of NRL last Friday night and showed that he should be an adequate replacement for Aaron Woods as he continues his rehabilitation. Will Kennedy was also solid at the back in his NRL debut.
The Sharks have shown enough glimpses so far this season, with Shaun Johnson finding his role within the team and the young brigade not just filling holes, but creating headaches for the opposition. The return of Matt Moylan and Wade Graham will only make things more uncertain for opposition defences.
The Sydney Roosters and Melbourne are the rightful favourites for the 2019 NRL season. However, if there is a dark horse for this year’s competition, it’s the Cronulla Sharks.