AFTER two devastating seasons in which the club lurched from one calamity to the next (both on and off the field), Cronulla heads into 2011 following one of the biggest shake-ups in the club’s 44-year history. Gone is coach Ricky Stuart – replaced by assistant Shane Flanagan – while the playing roster has also taken a heavy hit with veterans Trent Barrett and Luke Covell retired and Blake Ferguson, Adam Cuthbertson, Grant Milligan and Reece Williams departed.
The changes were nothing short of what was necessary following 15th- and 14th-place finishes since 2009; however it remains to be seen whether they will have the desired result.
Despite the loss of key player Greg Bird to off-field controversy when the club was on a high in late 2008 and a spate of injuries in 2009, there is no reason why the Sharks should have embarked on such a long streak of poor form.
Their forward pack – headed by Paul Gallen, Kade Snowden (presumably snug in the fold for 2011 after millionaire Nathan Tinkler’s bid to lure him to Newcastle fell over when the mining magnate walked away from his latest takeover plan… but that could change) and Luke Douglas – is among the most accomplished in the NRL and should have set a good platform for the outside backs, yet Cronulla ranked last for points scored in 2010 with just 354 at just 14.75 per game.
It is hoped that the arrival of gun youngster Wade Graham from Penrith will add more strike in the halves while speedster Colin Best returns home after eight years away.
It’s a squad with potential and visitors to Toyota Stadium can expect some torrid affairs, but it’s yet to be seen if they’ve got what it takes to put the dark days behind them.
How They’ll Play It… Cronulla have the engine room to succeed and their success in 2011 must start there. Gallen, Snowden and Douglas all averaged well over 100 metres per game last season and they welcome Dragons enforcer Jeremy Smith to the fold as well, so dominating up front shouldn’t be a problem.
The key will be showing more composure in attack when the inevitable opportunities arise.
Expect Plenty From… Nathan Gardner. The diminutive fullback was a revelation in 2010 after making his NRL debut and scored two scintillating length-of-the-field solo tries. He scored eight four-pointers and averaged 142 metres per game in his 16 appearances in 2010. A star of the future, he could be the man to break the attacking shackles.
They’re Going to Really Miss… Blake Ferguson. His loyalty has been questioned after comments made on his reasons for leaving Cronulla for Canberra, but there is no doubting his ability. In a side that struggled to score points, he was one of the few that could light up a football field.
Time To Stand Up… Anthony Tupou. The hard-running back-rower has endured some tough times on and off the field over the past 12 months. While he showed glimpses of his best late last year, it has been too far between big games for the former rep star and he needs to find more consistency in 2011.
At his best Tupou is a prolific off-loader and extremely difficult to contain when running on the fringes.
Coach Watch… The Sharks have made no secret of the fact that Shane Flanagan is basically on a trial – if he doesn’t perform in 2011 he will quickly be sent packing. However, he made some positive strides when he took over from Stuart late last year and shouldn’t be expected to perform miracles this season. If the club can at last challenge for a finals berth his position will be safe.
They’ll Be Boosted By… The return of Colin Best. The Sharks have lacked strike power in recent years but Best has an enviable record out wide, with 96 tries in 216 games.
Predicted Finish… 16th.
Toyota Cup… Just like their top-grade counterparts, Cronulla’s Toyota Cup squad limped to a 14th-place finish last season – but they are eyeing much loftier heights in 2011. A key focus this year will be kicking off match day on the right note – and that means winning games. It’s a simple philosophy that NRL coach Shane Flanagan has already spoken about in staff meetings and new Toyota Cup coach James Shepherd is confident of doing just that.
The Sharks have 10 players returning with an extra year’s experience under their belts while a number – including Albert Kelly, Matt Wright and Stewart Mills – have spent the off-season training with the NRL squad. The club has high hopes for 18-year-old centre Luke Pickard who represented the Australian Schoolboys last season.
Gains: Jeremy Smith (Dragons), Colin Best (Rabbitohs), Wade Graham (Panthers), John Williams (Cowboys), Ryan Tongia (Titans), Andrew Clayton (Broncos), Kose Lelei (Bulldogs).
Losses: Trent Barrett & Luke Covell (retired), Blake Ferguson (Raiders), Adam Cuthbertson (Dragons), Grant Millington (Bulldogs), Kyle O'Donnell (Knights), Josh Lewis (Toulouse Olympique), Reece Williams (retired), Lancen Joudo & Luke Harlen (released).