Under siege from the ASADA investigation, under pressure from members of their ladder-leading NSW Cup team and facing the prospect of a dismal 2013, Cronulla’s new-look NRL team know it’s now or never to recapture the hearts and minds of fans and get their season back on track against the Knights in Newcastle this weekend.
The highly fancied Sharks’ first-grade line-up has won just two matches after seven rounds so far, an effort that’s left fans bitterly disappointed on top of their off-field issues. The start to the season doesn’t sit well with their players either, but the NRL squad still believes there is plenty of life left in their premiership campaign.
"I wouldn’t have signed if I’d have thought [Cronulla would be battling for a finals position] – I think we’re a top-four team," says back-rower Chris Heighington, who admits changes are imminent should the team continue to lose.
"We’re definitely a top-four team with the squad we’ve got – I just think there’s still a long season to go and people are writing us off… but we win a few games in a row and we’re back on track real quick in the NRL. We’ve just got to start winning and relying on our own performance to get those wins."
New father Heighington is just one of numerous high-profile off-season purchases that firmed the Sharks as one of the competition’s favourites prior to season kick-off and before ASADA and the ACC came knocking. Off-field dramas aside, the former Tiger believes it was always going to take some time for the likes of himself, Michael Gordon, Beau Ryan, Jonathan Wright and Luke Lewis to gel with their new team.
"It does take a little while to get combinations and work things out and a lot of us have come from different clubs and have been at that club for a few years so it’s hard at times, but it’s coming together slowly," Heighington says.
"We’re not that far away – we’re just going to clean up a few little areas – and we’ve got a squad to go really well this year. We’re not using anything other than our performance on the field as an excuse."
Just this week Heighington and partner Sonya welcomed their first child, son Rocco. It’s placed his football – and life in general – into perspective for the four-time England Test representative.
"It’s good so far, pretty full-on but everything’s going good… it was a great experience," says Heighington, who was by Sonya’s side during delivery.
"It’s been a big change for me but we’re both loving it and everything’s good with him and that’s the most important thing, that we had a healthy baby. I’m just really proud to become a father and now I need to look after him and not just myself."
This week Heighington has been named on the Sharks’ bench but is battling to overcome a troublesome hamstring injury. With his fitness up in the air and the form of several players in the NRL team in question, he says the depth in the NSW Cup team – undefeated after seven matches – could be called upon soon.
"They’ve got a good set-up there because they get a few of the Melbourne Storm boys as well," he says of the deal that has a handful of Victorian-based players like Maurice Blair and Brett Finch playing in the Sharks’ reserve grade team.
"It’s a real good team and they’re going well with some regular first-graders playing down there in [Sam] Tagataese, Mark Taufua and players like that. It’s good to see the depth we’ve got in the club.
"[Coach Shane Flanagan] was saying a few of the guys are going well and they’re close to getting a start but they’ve just got to hang in there and keep playing well and an injury here or there might see them get a game. As long as they’re playing well and knocking on the door, sooner rather than later the door might open."
"We haven’t been winning but we’re not far away and it’s good to see that if ‘Flano’ needs to make any changes they’ll be in form and they’re winning games as well."
Heighington singled out a Cronulla NSW Cup back-rower with a famous surname as a player to watch for Sharks fans.
"I really like Tyrone Peachey, a young Aboriginal kid," Heighington says of Cronulla legend David Peachey’s nephew who could slot into the NRL side in the near future.
"He’s a really good player… he’s probably lacking a little in size but he makes up for it with his skill and I’m sure Sharks fans will see him play first grade this year."
This week the Sharks face one of the NRL’s toughest challenges – a road trip to Newcastle – in what is shaping as a defining game in their season. With two of their following four matches against the top-of-the-table Storm and Rabbitohs, the clash with the Knights is one Cronulla desperately need to win.
"They’re a real good team. Jarrod Mullen’s in good form and the guy at the back as well, Boyd, is in a bit of form too," Heighington says.
"We’re going to have to be on our game to go well – they’ve got some really good players and Wayne Bennett’s got them playing like the Dragons when they were going really well. We’re pretty confident though, the boys trained pretty well through the week and hopefully we can take that out on Sunday.
"I think we’ve just got to hold onto the ball and we haven’t completed too well over the past few weeks – and obviously the team that has the ball more than the other team usually wins the game.
"Everyone’s happy when you start winning and that’s what everyone’s focused on – a good performance and a win against the Knights on Sunday and coming back on the F3 with a smile on our face."