Greg Prichard, NRL.com
The Sharks played their entire season in the shadow of the ASADA investigation into the use of performance-enhancing drugs and showed what can be achieved under duress if you are able to apply mind over matter. Whether any of the Sharks’ players have to answer any charges at the end of the investigation remains to be seen, but in the meantime they were able to focus well enough on their football to still deliver a very competitive season. It is impossible to tell whether they would have done any better had the investigation not existed.
Fifth place at the end of the regular season followed by survival through to the second week of the Finals series was in the ball park of what most people would have thought was the best possible result for the Sharks before the start of 2013. They looked to be distracted at times along the way, with the effect that their form slipped temporarily, but in their last few games they looked to be giving it as good a shot as they possibly could. Key playmaker Todd Carney was missing through injury when the Sharks were finally eliminated by the Sea Eagles, and had he been able to play it could have potentially made the difference because the Sea Eagles were clearly struggling after a very physical game against the Roosters in the first week of the Finals and only had six points to spare (24-18) over the Sharks in the end.
Sharks coach Shane Flanagan was stood down by the club before the season began due to the ASADA investigation, but was later reinstated. Flanagan managed to hold the playing group together well, despite the surrounding drama, and after a difficult early season period during which they lost four games in a row at one stage, the Sharks rebounded with four straight wins to dramatically improve their win-loss record to 6-5. They never lost two games in a row again all season after that.
The Sharks eliminated the Cowboys 20-18 in Week One of the Finals, in a match dripping with controversy. It emerged almost immediately that the Sharks had scored an early try on the seventh tackle. The Cowboys blew up big time after the loss, and the six match officials were subsequently axed as a result of the error.
In their loss to the Sea Eagles the following week, the Sharks themselves were the victims of a controversial call that saw a try awarded to Sea Eagles winger Jorge Taufua. Speaking at the post-match media conference, Flanagan recorded his displeasure at what had happened. Unfortunately for the Sharks, though, there was to be no next week when they could run out and try to get rid of their frustrations.
Where They Excelled: Mental strength. The spotlight as a result of the ASADA investigation was rarely at a level lower than "harsh", but the Sharks kept working away and trying to get results. Because of the enormous media coverage, the distraction must have been huge at times, but they found the necessary energy and concentration by supporting each other and relying on the strength of the group.
Where They Struggled: The Sharks have signed some pretty good players in the last couple of years, but one more area they really need to improve on is out wide in attack. They need a strike centre. Ben Pomeroy (20 games, four tries) and Jonathan Wright (24 games, six tries) did their best, but neither of them has the potential to carve up the opposition. They could really do with a Michael Jennings – but so could every team!
Missing In Action: Skipper Paul Gallen missed 10 games, mostly because of injury but also through suspension. He is considered to be hugely important to the Sharks' chances, so it will come as a shock to many that the team's record without him was much better than it was with him this season. The Sharks won eight and lost eight with Gallen, and won seven and lost three without him. Go figure.
Turning Point: When Carney rushed to the sideline to grab a roll of bandages late in the Week One Finals game against the Cowboys and proceeded to frantically wrap it around his injured hamstring, you just knew that if the Sharks survived that game they were going to have to do it without him in Week Two. The Sharks really missed Carney against the Sea Eagles. There are plenty of twists and turns in a team's fortunes during the season, but that was the most critical one for the Sharks.
Best Games: The Sharks couldn't have had a more drama-charged lead-in to the season, with the news of the ASADA investigation breaking. But they showed plenty of mettle to grind out a 12-10 win at home over the Titans in the opening round.
Their 14-12 win over the Rabbitohs in Round 11 was typical Sharks material as well. Later, a 32-22 win over the Roosters in Round 24 gave the Sharks and their fans a huge boost nearing the finals.
Worst Games: Any time you lose to an Eels team that performed as badly as this year's version, you've had an awful day. That happened to the Sharks in Round 5, when they went down 13-6. The Sharks had a heap of star players out when they lost 40-0 to the Roosters in Round 19, but it's always embarrassing to be shut out – no matter what the circumstances. Particularly if, as well as keeping you to zero, the opposition is putting 40 points on you.
Hold Your Head High: Andrew Fifita had a breakout season for the Sharks which also saw him rise to State of Origin level for NSW and will probably see him make the Australian squad for the end-of-season World Cup in the UK as well. The massive yet athletic prop played 25 games and scored nine tries, as well as making six line-breaks and 35 offloads. He ran for an average of 145.8 metres per game and had a season-best figure of 251 metres in the Round 8 win over the Knights.
Conclusion: The pressure on the Sharks, because of reasons already well documented here, must have been enormous. To make it through to the second week of the Finals was a tremendous effort under the circumstances. The untimely injury to Carney may have stopped them from doing even further damage in the end.
Wins: 14 (Finals 1)
Losses: 10 (Finals 1)
Position: 5th (6th after Finals)
Home Record: 8-4
Away Record: 6-6
Longest Winning Streak: 4 (Rounds 8-11)
Longest Losing Streak: 4 (Rounds 4-7)
Players Used: 29
Tries Scored (after 26 rounds): 76 (4th fewest)
Tries Conceded (after 26 rounds): 80 (=7th fewest)