Todd Carney's attacking threat is what the Sharks were missing when they bowed out of last year's finals series. Copyright: NRL Photos. Credit: NRL Photos Copyright: NRL Photos
The most improved player
Seriously, how good was Andrew Fifita in 2013? It's hard to recall a more dramatic breakout season by any player so long after their debut (2013 was Fifita's fourth in the top grade after debuting for Wests Tigers in 2010 then joining the Sharks in 2012). He finished as the NRL's top metre eater by the length of the straight (his 3,949 in 25 games was well clear of Brisbane lock Corey Parker's 3,456 in 22 games) and his average metres per match of 158 ranked second in the league – and it was only his club skipper Paul Gallen who finished ahead of him. Fifita did his best work coming off the bench, where he often played out the rest of the game from the 20-minute mark, churning out 200 or even 250 metres. His pure athleticism also helped him to the rare feat of finishing as his side's leading try scorer from the front row – his nine meat pies had him one clear of fullback Mick Gordon. This all-round game makes him a central cog in Cronulla's quest for 2014 glory. And it's also worth noting that he will be surrounded by...
...An all-star forward pack
One of the (many) reasons for the Kangaroos' dominance at the recent World Cup is the gigantic motors possessed by two star Sharks forwards, Fifita and Gallen. We've known for some time that Gallen is a player that can play at prop, second row or lock, and will churn out massive metres (Gallen notched an NRL-high 187.7 metres per game in 2013) as well as plenty of tackles and offloads wherever he plays. His combination with Fifita means opposition defenses won't get any rest from the blue, black and white battering ram. Throw in the sheer class of Luke Lewis (whose presence makes the Sharks the only club with three current Kangaroos in its forward pack), the stinging defence of Wade Graham and Sam Tagataese, the skill of former Kangaroo Anthony Tupou and more depth offered by the evergreen Chris Heighington and Dragons recruit Matt Prior and you have arguably the best forward pack of 2014 on your hands.
A wounded bull
"To charge like a wounded bull" is a saying for a reason: because when you take a wild animal and provoke it, it gets angry and fights back. And in 2014, the Sharks will have a lot of big angry men running out each week who've been pushed into a corner, prodded and poked and provoked, and they'll be angry. Coach Shan Flanagan clearly has the unwavering support of the dressing room and regardless of whether or not he successfully challenges his nine- or 12-month coaching ban there is no doubt the players – including all those angry forwards mentioned above – will have a point to prove and will be looking for some opposition players to take out their frustrations on. From the Titans, who have the somewhat unenviable task of taking on the Sharks in Round 1, to every club that faces them thereafter – get ready for some bruising encounters.
While last year's grand final sides will enter 2014 with either two incumbent Test players in the halves (Manly) or an incumbent Origin halves pairing (the Roosters), Cronulla's yin and yang of Todd Carney and Jeff Robson is both underrated and dangerous. Carney, let's not forget, was the 2010 Dally M Medal winner, while Robson was a pivotal cog in Parramatta's 2009 grand final surge. He plays a similar role at Cronulla – the cool head to guide around a couple of X-factor players. His defence is underrated (his one-on-one try saver against Brent Kite last year in a narrow 24-18 preliminary final loss was one of the tackles of the season) while Carney's 21 try assists in 21 games highlighted his value. This was further underscored in that semi-final loss to Manly which Carney missed through injury – the Sharks fought valiantly but never quite looked like scoring enough points to knock out the eventual grand finalists in Carney's absence.
The Sharks will go into 2014 with some pretty handy players on the fringes of first grade squad selection, and some even better players in the starting side. Former NSW winger Mick Gordon is one of the game's elite kick returners and broken play runners when fully fit, which he looked to be for much of 2013. His 1,122 kick return metres was fifth best in the NRL, and he made them from fewer games (22) than any of the four players above him save for Warriors fullback Kevin Locke (1,135 from 20). And Gordon's form is keeping livewire fullback Nathan Gardner out of the top 17, although Gardner's a very handy backup to have in waiting and could yet fill a role elsewhere in the backline. Speaking of options, winger Beau Ryan is in career-best form, getting through plenty of tidy up work as well as filling in admirably at centre and fullback as required over the past two seasons. The backline has been bolstered by another former Tiger in centre Blake Ayshford, with Jonathan Wright and Sosaia Feki likely to round out the back five, leaving former Parramatta and NSW winger Eric Grothe and centre Nathan Stapleton biding their time along with Gardner.