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Mid-season review: Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks

Position after 13 rounds: 6th
Wins: 7
Losses: 5
Byes: 1
Competition points: 16
Differential: +4

Is there any NRL side with a better feel-good story to start 2012 than the Sharks? At the beginning of the season the Shire side once again appeared a hopeful unit at best – a team lacking sponsors, fans and, according to experts, game-breakers… until it all changed.

Halfway through the season, the Sharks have rediscovered the bite that has been missing since they last appeared in the finals in 2008. The Sharks circa 2012 are proving good enough to beat any side on their day – the proof in the pudding of their victories over previously undefeated Melbourne and last year’s premiers Manly at the start and finish of a six-match winning streak.

The news isn’t just positive for the Sharks on the field – the financially challenged club has also secured two major sponsors, with Fisherman’s Friend and Shark energy drink penning deals.

The Sharks’ home crowds are also on the increase, with a current average attendance of 14,904 a major improvement on last season’s 12,094.

However, the major questions remain: can the Sharks continue that momentum into the second half of the football season – a part of the year when Cronulla usually falters? And can Todd Carney – so vital to the Sharks’ run of good form so far – stay fit and firing?

Are Things Going To Plan? There’s no doubting that coach Shane Flanagan would’ve happily accepted the current position on the ladder had he been asked early in the year… but there are some danger signs emerging.

Despite six wins in a row from Rounds 3-8, in recent weeks the Sharks have fallen to the Bulldogs, Rabbitohs and lowly Eels. Most alarming from those matches was the lack of their traditionally strong defence – those three losses saw the Sharks concede a total of 89 points.

There are enough positives, though, for Flanagan and his team to be more than optimistic entering the business end of the 2012 season – especially being the only team so far this year to defeat the table-topping Storm. The Sharks are near enough if they’re consistently good enough… and after 15th-, 14th- and 13th-placed finishes in the past three seasons, they’ll desperately want to make hay while the sun is still shining.

A lot rests on the Sharks’ attack – they currently score just 18.3 points per game (eighth in the competition) and will need that scoring rate to increase to become genuine competition threats.

Injury Front… The Sharks have been fairly lucky in terms of casualties so far this season, utilising just 23 players to date – the equal fewest so far. Of their big-name players, only Anthony Tupou and Nathan Gardner have been affected for a significant length of time.

First-choice fullback Gardner tore his ACL late in the win against the Dragons in Round 6. He’s due back in Round 22 but won’t be rushed into playing NRL.

Dynamic ball-playing back-rower Tupou has had terrible trouble with his knees recently, and hasn’t played since the Round 4 clash with the Cowboys. Post-match surgery found ACL damage – to the opposite knee that underwent radical stem-cell surgery during the off-season.

Flanagan told NRL.com both players could have a big impact when they return – especially a “stronger-than-ever” Tupou, who is due back in Round 20 but could return earlier.

Stewart Mills is the Sharks’ only other current injury concern, with the winger due to return from his hamstring complaint within a fortnight.

Cronulla and NSW fans are particularly relieved captain Paul Gallen’s knee injury – sustained in the Sharks’ match against the Rabbitohs – was only minor.

If Only… The Sharks had capitalised and been rewarded for strong performances in their opening two matches. While Cronulla lost both Rounds 1 and 2, they’ll certainly rue a string of missed opportunities and controversial decisions – had they won both matches they’d currently be sitting in outright second position.

Against the Wests Tigers at Leichhardt in Round 1, the Sharks performed strongly and held a 16-12 lead until a late Beau Ryan try took the game into extra time. In that period of extra time, Cronulla received the ball from their own kick-off via a deflection off the posts, but seconds later were incorrectly penalised after regaining position deep inside Wests Tigers territory… for being offside following a charge-down! The Tigers, on the back of the ruling, marched downfield, Benji Marshall slotted a field-goal and the home side won when they really shouldn’t have.

The following week at Toyota Stadium, the Sharks spent the opening half of the match against Newcastle tearing the Knights to shreds. Cronulla continually occupied good field position, before slipping through the line and/or past Newcastle defenders. The only problem, though, was the Sharks failed to capitalise – on at least three occasions Cronulla failed to score with two-on-ones and the tryline wide open. (In the match the Sharks created seven line-breaks to the Knights’ three.) The Knights lifted as a result of the Sharks’ poor finishing, entering halftime with a 6-0 lead before cruising to an 18-6 win even without their influential playmaker Kurt Gidley.

Who’s Flying… Did anyone seriously doubt Paul Gallen was going to have another strong 2012 season? The Cronulla and NSW skipper continues to lead by example even when his body threatens to give way. The centre-field-based back-rower leads the league once again in number of carries (246) and metres made (averaging 198 per game) – no surprise to Sharks fans and fantasy footballers.

New recruit Jeff Robson has also made a good fist of halfback since being called up to first grade and shifting Todd Carney to five-eighth and Wade Graham to the back row/bench. While Robson’s statistics don’t indicate he’s a game-breaker, he’s a steady-as-she-goes leader the Sharks’ backline needs. With enigmatic five-eighth Carney outside him, Robson provides a cool head, experience and direction the Sharks need to go deep into the finals. The former Eel has a particularly strong defensive and short-kicking game – both crucial qualities that can make or break matches come September.

Needs To Lift… Plenty has been said of the career lifeline the Sharks have thrown Carney… and how he’s responded with good form. Well, if Cronulla are to cement their spot in the top eight, go deep into the finals and challenge for a title, he needs to do more – a lot more.

So far this season Carney has delivered hot and cold efforts – man-of-the-match displays followed by performances lacking intensity. The No.6 needs to keep running the ball – not just turning it inside – as his running game keeps defences guessing… and the Sharks on the front foot. We need only turn our attention to the Sharks-Rabbitohs attacking showcase, when Carney ran five times, broke seven tackles and busted the line three times, scoring a try in the process. More Carney runs equals more Cronulla victories.

Another who could improve is bench hooker John Morris. The former Wests Tiger and Eel comes onto the paddock to replace aggressive and solid starting rake Isaac De Gois. Morris’ attacking style of play is meant to be complementary… but this season it’s been down on its best returns. The Sharkies need Morris to be an attacking spark out of dummy-half as the forwards tire, and provide another foil for Carney. Morris has averaged just 37 running metres per match so far in 2012, and crucially hasn’t thrown a pass for a line-bust or broken the line himself.

Shane Flanagan tells NRL.com… “[The loss against Parramatta, it hurts]… but up to date we’ve been pretty consistent – I think we’ve been in most games,” Flanagan says.

“There are only a few games we’re a bit disappointed about... If you can go back through your games at this stage of the year and remember why and how you’ve lost them, you’re doing pretty well.

“We need to be just as good and continue on the path we’ve gone… no matter how many wins you string together, you need patches of good form to make it to the semi finals.

“There’s little things we’re working on all the time – we’re always looking to get better and not saying we’re perfect at anything! We’ve got a lot of improvement in us as individuals and a group and that’s what we’re working on every day at training.

“We’re probably a little bit slow at learning to play with Todd [Carney] and those kind of players in our team, so I think our attack will come off the back off good defence and we can be better again. I’d like to think our attack can get better as the year goes on.”

Predicted Finish… The Sharks could go either way – their attack clicks and they rocket up the ladder, or they continue to struggle to post big numbers of points. We predict, on the back of the NRL’s strongest forward pack featuring Gallen, Ben Ross, Bryce Gibbs, Jeremy Smith and, when he returns, Tupou, the Sharks’ outside backs will eventually have no other choice but hit top gear and blow lesser teams off the park. We see a fifth-placed finish – and from there anything is possible.

Under-20s… This season was always going to be a difficult one for Cronulla’s Toyota Cup side, entering the year without some of its biggest stars. Coach James Shepherd even told us so:

“Obviously we lost some quality players with Chad Townsend, Tyson Frizell, Stewart Mills and Tyrone Peachey – they were an integral part of our success last year… It’s going to be very difficult... you basically have to start again,” Shepherd told NRL.com at the start of the year.

But Shepherd and his current group of under-20s are remaining competitive despite the huge player turnover and currently sit in equal sixth place on the competition ladder with 15 points.

The junior Sharks have been effective at defeating sides below them on the ladder – in Round 3 they smashed Manly 78-10 in a 14-try romp – but have so far struggled against the competition’s top sides. Ladder-leading Penrith (48-22) and third-placed Canterbury-Bankstown (54-12) have both put a heap of points on the Sharkies, emphasising Cronulla’s task to lift to qualify for the finals.

Playmaker Penani Manumalealii, who came to Cronulla at 16, remains the Sharks’ go-to man – he has scored four tries and proved the difference against the Eels by kicking a field-goal in a 21-20 win.

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