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Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks 2012 preview

Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks

Gains: Mark Taufua (Knights), Andrew Fifita (Wests Tigers), Bryce Gibbs (Wests Tigers), Isaac De Gois (Knights), Jeff Robson (Eels), Jon Green (Dragons), Ben Ross (Rabbitohs), Todd Carney (Roosters), Sosaia Feki (Warriors).

Losses: Luke Douglas (Titans), Kade Snowden (Knights), Taulima Tautai (Eels), Tim Smith (Wakefield), Jon Mannah (Eels), Dean Collis (Wakefield), Soisaia Vave (Storm), Ryan Tongia  (Wakefield), Luke Harlen (Cowboys), Paul Aiton, Scott Porter, Broderick Wright (all released).

Perennial bridesmaids the Cronulla Sharks enter the 2012 season with hope that their wretched run in recent years will finally come to an end. And following the NRL’s most aggressive recruitment drive and a clean-out of its playing ranks, coaches and supporters have reason to be hopeful too.

Since 1967 Cronulla has struggled on and off the field, and 2012 is potentially a make-or-break season for the club. Desperate for success, they have implemented bold plays to secure their finances as well as their chances of securing an elusive first premiership.

Cronulla’s off-field fortunes are at the mercy of a proposed $300-million property development, which, if passed, could include eight residential buildings, a retail and leisure centre, and upgrades to Toyota Stadium. The NSW Department of Planning is considering the proposal, with news on the project expected soon.

On the field, the Sharks embrace 2012 with an overhauled NRL squad. Coach Shane Flanagan has taken a broom to the roster he inherited from the Ricky Stuart era, sweeping out a raft of fringe first-graders and replacing them with hardened professionals and precocious talents.

At the very heart of Flanagan’s recruitment drive was securing the services of controversial but undoubtedly talented playmaker Todd Carney. In previous years the Sharks have lacked an X-factor in the halves – Carney’s signing brings a proven match-winner to the Shire, but also an individual who has caused significant disruption to his former clubs. It’s a ‘Hail Mary’ play by Flanagan and the Sharks if ever there was one – a move that could help the Sharks rediscover their bite, or a play that could drag the club through the mud once again. One thing’s for sure though: the Sharks are a much greater threat to opposition teams with the former Dally M medal winner in their line-up.

The Sharks circa 2012 should prove stronger on the field also thanks to their other new recruits, including impact forwards Mark Taufua and Andrew Fifita, bookends Jon Green and Bryce Gibbs, and returning forwards Ben Ross and Isaac De Gois. In 2011, when the Sharks finished 13th, they struggled in both attack and defence, scoring 20 points or more on just nine occasions, conceding 20 or more points 11 times. This season, on paper at least, they look a much greater threat to opposition teams with and without the football.

How They’ll Play It: Expect a re-energised attacking game from the Sharks in 2012, with Carney operating as the maestro of the backline orchestra. Since Brett Kimmorley left Cronulla at the end of 2008, the Sharks have lacked a proven playmaker – expect that to change this season if Carney (as he showed in his first trial in the No.7 jersey against Manly) finds his feet in the Shire and hits top gear on the field. Stats-wise, the Sharks were below par with ball in hand last season, recording an average of 17.8 points (ranked a lowly 12th), 3.1 tries (11th) and four line-breaks (8th) a game. With the former Raider and Rooster calling the shots, Cronulla’s attacking threats Nathan Gardner, Ben Pomeroy and Stewart Mills should expect a greater number of line-breaking, hole-running and point-scoring opportunities – something they’ve had all too little of in recent years. Carney’s presence will also free up ball-running halves partner Wade Graham, further boosting the team’s chances of creating opportunities across the park.

The Sharks will also be keen to rectify their defence in 2012, something the traditionally tough team struggled with last year. The signing of defensively intelligent Gibbs (who averaged 0.9 missed tackles in 42.8 minutes per game last year) and Ross (just 1.3 missed tackles in 40.6 minutes per game last year) will help significantly. Coach Flanagan and new assistant, former Manly and Northern Eagles coach Peter Sharp, will have placed a big emphasis on defensive communication in the off-season – last year Cronulla conceded a particularly poor average of tries (four – the fourth most), points (23.2 – also fourth most) and metres (1378.1 – fifth most) each match.

Expect HUGE Things From: The all-too-obvious answer is Todd Carney – a player written off as a troublemaker and overlooked by every other NRL team when he was released from the Roosters at the end of 2011. No doubt Carney will be looking to repay the Sharks’ faith, but he’s not the only Cronulla player who’s looking to impress.

Unwanted by incoming Newcastle coach Wayne Bennett, former Knights De Gois and Taufua are no doubt champing at the bit to prove the master coach wrong. Late last season determined dummy-half De Gois told NRL.com he was “devastated” to be leaving Newcastle after only months earlier agreeing to a new three-year deal. Impact forward Taufua also expressed his disappointment at being shown the door, using Twitter to fire a parting shot at Bennett when the mentor met his new players. Taufua went as far to say he wished Bennett was still playing so he could “fold him like my washing”.

Bonus Points: Cronulla have a strong squad across the park but apart from Paul Gallen (and, if he returns to top form, possibly Carney) the team won’t be forced to fill a sizeable void come State of Origin time, from Rounds 11-17. There’s still strength across the park and leadership options when Gallen is gone though, with centre Colin Best, De Gois, Gibbs, utility John Morris, centre Ben Pomeroy, Ross, rampaging forward Sam Tagataese, Kiwi enforcer Jeremy Smith, Taufua and ball-playing second-rower Anthony Tupou all having played some form of representative football. While other clubs with be struggling to find numbers, Cronulla will have a near-full-strength line-up at their disposal… and this year they should be able to at least temporarily cover for Gallen.

Also, the Sharks are particularly blessed with depth in the halves and at hooker – there are plenty of options for Flanagan to call on, if needed. At No.6 and No.7, they are overflowing with options. Other than Carney and Graham, Cronulla can also call on promising youngster Chad Townsend, reliable veteran John Morris, livewire Albert Kelly and former grand final half Jeff Robson. Morris and Robson also provide options at dummy-half, with De Gois their first-choice hooker. Five-eighth or halfback Kelly, in particular, is a work in progress – a talented, exciting and electric attacking option, but an individual who has battled off-field demons. The Sharks need him and all their fringe options to be playing to their potential.

They’re Really Going To Miss: Bookends Luke Douglas and Kade Snowden both departed Cronulla at the end of 2011, for the Titans and Knights respectively. Douglas, in particular, proved a great servant for the Sharks – the hard-working, fearless front-rower amazingly played every game for his club for six consecutive seasons. Both Snowden (NSW and Australia) and Douglas (PM’s XIII) were selected for representative duties as a result of their strong club form – a sign they’ll be sorely missed. However, Cronulla have planned for their front-row future, signing proven performers Gibbs, Ross and Green, as well as promising former Wests Tiger Andrew Fifita.

It’s Time To Deliver: For the Sharks to press for a finals berth, their outside backs need a kick up the buttocks and to kick into gear. Centre Ben Pomeroy, in particular, needs to step up after a couple of below-par seasons in recent years, including being dropped at the end of 2011. In 2008 the rangy former Panther looked a talent bound for higher honours, showcasing a strong running game and a powerful fend that often left defenders in his wake. However, since then he’s been on the slide, with persistent handling errors and brain snaps plaguing his game and crippling the attack outside him. There’s no doubt the ball he’s received in recent years has been of questionable quality, but with Carney steering the ship better opportunities will be forthcoming. He needs to take them.

How’s Their Depth: It’s great across the halves and forwards, but a little skinny out wide. Coach Flanagan has a raft of options in the halves at his disposal, as he does in the forwards. There is a fierce battle for spots in the pack, with Gibbs, De Gois, Ross, Smith and Gallen likely starters. Jayson Bukuya, Tupou, Tagataese and props Josh Cordoba, Green, Taufua and Fifita will be fighting for bench spots as well as the final starting-pack position.

In the centres, however, it’s another matter: Best and Pomeroy are the only experienced options for Shane Flanagan to utilise. By no means unstoppable or spectacular, the duo could well be shuffled if they don’t perform, with stop-gap measures and unproven rookies the only options to take their place. If pushed, the Sharks could slot a range of others into the three-quarter line, including the unproven Ricky Leutele, and forwards Bukuya and Tagataese, with wingers Matthew Wright and Stewart Mills also possible centre candidates. Cronulla fans will also be ruing recent news that promising outside back Nathan Stapleton recently tore his ACL. Stapleton will undergo the revolutionary LARS surgery – the same procedure former Shark Luke Covell underwent – and is expected back on the field approximately six weeks into the season. Ditto the recent Isaac Gordon off-field drama, which it seems isn’t totally resolved.

Under-20s: Last season the Sharks’ Toyota Cup side performed strongly, losing to the Cowboys in the Preliminary Finals. At the heart of their success was a dynamic attacking game (Cronulla’s Toyota Cup team scored 707 points for the season, the fourth most) based around talents who unfortunately are now too old for the underage competition. This season looks a rebuilding period for the junior Sharks, but one in which their coach still predicts ‘competitive’ performances.

“Obviously we lose some quality players with Chad Townsend, Tyson Frizzell, Stewart Mills and Tyrone Peachey – they were an integral part of our success last year – but if we can keep our best players on the park and keep some cohesion we’ll be competitive,” coach James Shepherd tells NRL.com.

“It’s going to be very difficult... you basically have to start again because it’s an underage comp and the influx of new players is pretty big. As soon as boys get too old you lose them... and we’ve lost some quality. We’re not starting from square one but we are starting again.”

The Coach: This season is the litmus test for Shane Flanagan. Now, finally, Flanagan has a strong squad of players capable of making the finals – how the team performs will largely depend on the game plan he develops.

If the Sharks are playing attractive, effective football that brings fans to Toyota Stadium and has his team cemented in the top eight early on, expect Flanagan to be handed an extension at the club. With one season left on his current contract, the Sharks’ board will be analysing the performance of Flanagan and his team very closely. They surely won’t settle for less than a finals finish and a shot at an elusive premiership.

Predicted Finish: Just like the Roosters in 2010 and 2011, so much of the Sharks’ season rests in the hands of Todd Carney – if he behaves and plays to his potential, Cronulla fans can expect a season of headline moments… for all the right reasons. Whether the club and Carney can control the demons, though, is anyone’s guess. If they do, the Sharks have enough up-front power and backline potency to challenge – and beat – any other team in the competition. Throw 16 numbers into a hat, close your eyes and yank a number out – that’ll be as close a prediction as any expert can muster on the Sharks at this stage. But we’ll stick our neck out and say 10th.

Toyota NRL Dream Team view from NRL.com's Lone Scout
The value pick: Todd Carney should be the Sharks' go-to man in attack, comes in pretty cheap, and is available at fullback as well.
The must have: Inspirational skipper Paul Gallen is probably the hardest-working forward in the NRL and is far and away Cronulla's most reliable Dream Team prospect.

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