Matt Encarnacion, Western Sydney Correspondent
Sharks stand-in skipper Wade Graham says his team are finally reaping the rewards of a healthy playing roster that at one stage had more players in rehab than at training.
While most players talk about their season-long search for consistency like it is the holy grail of rugby league, Graham said the Sharks had been flat out just fielding the same 17 every week.
And that, Graham said, was the reason why Cronulla outpointed Penrith 18-16
in the central-western NSW town of Bathurst on Saturday afternoon.
"To be fair to us, we probably had a bit more consistency in our team. Earlier on in the year, I know it's a hard excuse to make, but we were decimated with injuries, we couldn't keep the same team on the paddock week to week," Graham said post-game.
"For the last month or so we've had the same team, probably [with] Gal in and out. But we've had some consistency with the seven, nine, six and fullback. If you have that across the board, then you go a long way to keeping the cohesion in the team."
Seven weeks ago, the Sharks were shut out 30-0 in Wollongong with an entire starting line-up sitting helplessly on the sideline. But in the past five weeks, Cronulla has toppled three top eight teams.
"Through that Origin period, we had 14 blokes in rehab let alone playing Origin," Graham said. "The competition's too tough to play without quality payers and the last month or so we managed to keep the boys on the park and we've got wins because of it."
Coach James Shepherd agreed. And after being handed the head gig for the remainder of the season, the long-time club servant said all that was left this year was for a "good footy team" to win as many games as they can.
"I'm not going to put a number on it because that's unfair. We just need to compete. When they play good footy, they're a good football team. Again we just haven't played that for a long enough period of time," he said.
"We can match any team in the competition on our day, but we just had too many bad periods in games. And that's let us fall away.
"Wade's right. At the start of the year, the team was changing week to week. Sometimes there'd be three, four, five changes in a week, and that's just hard to cope with in a team sport because it's all about cohesion."
Cronulla got a trademark barnstormer out of fresh prop Andrew Fifita, who broke the game open with two try assists and a running game that totalled a game-high 237 metres.
"It's hard for the defence obviously because I don't think he knows what he's doing half the time," Graham said.
"He's just a big thing, running around playing footy, which is good. When he's like that, he's certainly a handful. And he can produce some special stuff for the team."
But it was their class of rookies, led by two-try hero Jacob Gagan, that give Sharks fans something to take away from 2014.
"Obviously results-wise it's disappointing. Internally we can chat about where we think our issues have been," Graham said.
"But Jacob Gagan got a full year, he's going to be a great player. He's going to be better for it. Guys like Ricky Leutele and Sosaia Feki have had full seasons together. They're quality players that are going to learn from it, and we've managed to get Nu Brown a run, he's starting to find his feet.
"Hopefully chatting with Shep, maybe we can squeeze Valentine Holmes in to give him a bit of a taste. There's a lot of positives for the younger guys. That's what we're looking forward to moving on."