Home Record: 4 wins, 8 losses (=14th)
Away Record: 3 wins, 9 losses (=10th)
Longest Winning Streak: 4 (Rounds 15-18)
Longest Losing Streak: 8 (Rounds 19-26)
Players Used: 31 (5th most)
Player Of The Year: Yet to be announced
Tries Scored (After 26 rounds): 75 (5th fewest)
Tries Conceded (After 26 rounds): 95 (fourth most)
For a brief moment in the middle of the season we all thought, “wait a minute – the Sharks might actually do this”. They had pulled up to equal eighth after a four-game winning streak and while no-one was talking about winning a maiden premiership, there was a feeling they could compete in the top-eight finals series. Paul Gallen was at his unstoppable best and an injection of youthful enthusiasm from the likes of halfback Chad Townsend had given them life.
But it was a false dawn in the Shire. The reining premier Dragons started the rot by thrashing them 38-8 to put them well and truly back in their place, and a further seven losses on the trot meant they failed to add to their competition points after Round 18.
We should’ve known… prior to the four-match streak they’d won just three of 12 games, with a lack of killer instinct the issue – the Sharks lost eight games by eight or fewer points.
With the front row of Kade Snowden and Luke Douglas moving on it remains to be seen if the Sharks’ new recruits can fill the void… or whether their current eight-game losing run might continue a for a while into next season.
Where They Excelled: With Paul Gallen at the helm it probably comes as no surprise the Sharks were a top offloading team. They averaged 13.1 a match to be ranked fourth in the NRL at producing second-phase football. It ended up the catalyst for many of their tries – but sadly not enough were produced for them to progress to the end-of-year games.
Elsewhere, the Sharks ranked fourth for tackle-breaks – which like the offload stat, highlights the lack of finish the team had. Whether you blame the halves or not is up to each individual but it appears the team had chances, but couldn’t capitalise. This is further strengthened when you see the side ranked an impressive third in the NRL for limiting errors, so they certainly weren’t guilty of surrendering much cheap ball.
Where They Struggled: The side obviously struggled to ‘close the deal’. They had issues scoring points and conceding them despite playing a disciplined-enough brand of grinding football that stamped them competitive. The side scored the fifth-fewest points and conceded the fourth most. When it came to the crunch they weren’t good enough and a common moan by the fans as they left each game was: “If only matches went for 70 minutes!”
Delving further into their struggles we see they were ranked 12th at metres conceded (fifth most), so they were inviting teams to attack all year. They were also extremely poor defending their goal line – not a good mix. The Sharks allowed 52 tries from inside 10 metres… only South Sydney were worse.
The side also had the second-worst defence on the right edge, with other teams scoring 25 tries on the left edge of the field (against the Sharks’ right-edge defenders).
Missing In Action: The loss of playmaker Albert Kelly (played just nine games) to a broken leg early in the year certainly stunted the Sharks’ flow and style but youngster Chad Townsend had some solid games in cover.
Other players to miss a little time through injury included Paul Aiton, Jayson Bukuya, Gallen, Nathan Gardner and Snowden. Shane Flanagan did use 31 players in 2011 but that wasn’t due to injury epidemics. Depth has been an issue for the Sharks in the past few seasons but some of their young players looked spritely and could improve the side going forward.
Turning Point: Any thoughts of a Sharks’ revival and push to the semi-finals received a reality check in Round 19 against the Dragons. They were on the back of four wins in a row and flying high before the Dragons showed them the level of play they’d need to obtain to really challenge. The result was a 38-8 belting which initiated a losing streak that would continue until the end of the year. When they lost to Newcastle at home the following week without registering a point (18-0) you knew the Sharks had been dealt a real body blow.
The team were also on the back foot when they lost five in a row after winning two of their opening three games.
Best Games: By far the Sharks’ best performance was their Round 2 ambush of the reigning premiers. They were at long odds to beat their fierce rivals – particularly given they had opened the season with a dismal 40-12 loss to Canberra and the Dragons had beaten the Gold Coast away from home not long after being crowned World Club Champions. But in trying conditions the Sharks ‘out-Dragoned’ the Dragons, grinding their way to a 16-10 victory.
They backed that up with a demolition of the Panthers, in Penrith, to the tune of 44-12. Fans were excused for thinking their boys would have a hard edge this season – but no. The four-game winning streak was also impressive but, at the end of the day, came against other sides that did not make the top eight.
Significantly the win against the Dragons in Round 2 was the only win against a side in the final top eight.
Worst Games: The Sharks probably started the year with their most disappointing defeat, a 40-12 hammering at the hands of the Canberra Raiders. It was an inept display of defence and had the fans in fear of a wooden spoon just one round into the competition! (Funnily enough they produced their best win of the year the following week.)
There were plenty of tough losses, as mentioned elsewhere, eight by eight or fewer points, but it was the blowouts that were hard to swallow. The afore-mentioned Round 19 debacle against the Dragons, losing 38-8, was tough and it started the freefall: 18-0 the next week to the Knights, 46-16 a week later to the Broncos… it started to get ugly. During the last five rounds the team still failed to win, but they did put up a fight, something that perhaps couldn’t be said about their previous three games.
Hold Your Head High: Of course captain Paul Gallen is going to get a mention here. Accumulating an NRL-high 429 hit-ups, he tried to drag his side to bigger and better things. And while it’s not technically part of the NRL season, his performance in State of Origin II was phenomenal.
Nathan Gardner and Wade Graham (13 line-breaks each) were the most potent Sharks’ players in attack (but still didn’t offer enough), while Jeremy Smith brought some mongrel to the side.
He might not have been back to his absolute best but a shout out also goes to Anthony Tupou, who fought back from a wretched 2010 with a solid 2011 (including 61 offloads, the second most for the year).
Coach Shane Flanagan says: “It’s not where we wanted to finish but when it was apparent we couldn’t make the top eight we wanted teams to know they were in for a tough night when they played the Sharks. Over the last few weeks [of the competition] we managed that.”
Conclusion: If you can’t win some close games in the NRL, you can’t expect to be title contenders. Good teams find a way to win when it gets tight and sadly for the Sharks, by this definition, they weren’t a good team.
They now lose their big bookends up front, and while Bryce Gibbs and Jon Green and Andrew Fifita are decent players, they will have big shoes to fill to match the established grunt of Snowden and Douglas.