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Season review: Cronulla Sharks

Nicholas Janzen NRL.com Thu, Oct 04, 2012 - 3:05 PM

Todd Carney proved to be an inspired recruit for the Sharks in 2012. Copyright: NRL Photos

REGULAR SEASON
Wins:
12
Losses: 11
Draws: 1
Position: 7th
Home Record: 7 wins, 4 losses, 1 draw (8th)
Away Record: 5 wins, 7 losses (=9th)

AFTER FINALS
Wins:
0
Losses: 1
Position: 7th

Longest Winning Streak: 6 (Rounds 3-8)
Longest Losing Streak: 3 (twice – Rounds 19-21 and 25-Finals Week One)
Players Used: 26
Tries Scored (after 26 rounds): 3.2 per game (=12th)
Tries Conceded (after 26 rounds): 3.2 per game (=5th)

It could’ve – and should’ve – been a lot different for the Cronulla Sharks in 2012. After a season full of much promise, a Finals Week One exit won’t sit well with Cronulla’s fans, coaching staff and players. With the team cemented in the top four for much of the season, a more impressive end to the season should’ve occurred.

Little was expected of the Sharks this season, even following the off-season purchases of supposedly washed-up or inconsistent stars including Todd Carney, Ben Ross, Andrew Fifita, Bryce Gibbs and Isaac De Gois. But Cronulla – the perennial bridesmaids of Australian rugby league – proved more than competitive for most of 2012, overcoming the 13th-, 14th- and 15th-placed finishes of recent years to finish higher than almost all the experts predicted.

At various stages of the year, the offcuts, rejects and wildcards recruited from other clubs performed so strongly they even looked premiership possibilities – their performances, particularly their wins against competition heavyweights the Sea Eagles (Round 3), Storm (Round 10) and Rabbitohs (Round 24), had many believing a rags-to-riches story could come to fruition in 2012.

But, as has been standard in the Sutherland Shire in recent years, Cronulla struggled in the back-end of the NRL season. After such a promising start, the Sharks slipped down the ladder on the back of a stuttering attack and a defence that was weakened following the periodic losses of stalwart back-rower Paul Gallen. The Sharks banked only four competition points from their final 10 matches – a worrying trend for coach Shane Flanagan that ultimately saw his side slide down the table to seventh position, losing the advantage of a home final in the process.

After three years in the finals wilderness, season 2012 however was a giant step forward for Flanagan’s men. After pretty much anchoring the table in their previous three seasons, a presence in the playoffs represented significant progress for a club that has experienced failure more than most.

Vitally important going forward, however, is the approval of the club’s development which was secured late in the season. The green light for the commercial and residential complex – to be located on the land adjacent to the Sharkies’ Leagues Club – has rescued the club from a dire financial situation and ensured their future. After more than 40 years of financial uncertainty, that’s a mighty step for the Sharks… even if not quite in the same category as breaking their premiership drought.

Where They Excelled… The re-energised Sharks presented a more united front on the field, evidenced by their new-found defensive mettle and a willingness to grind out victories against even the most uncompromising teams in the competition. The Sharks conceded an average of just 19 points per game – significant improvement on their 2011 figure of more than 23 points conceded each outing. If defence truly does win titles, the Sharks’ coaches laid a platform to build on in 2013.

Where They Struggled… Cronulla have struggled in attack ever since the departure of Preston Campbell – and for the most part, even despite the recruitment of Carney and former Eels halfback Jeff Robson, 2012 was much of the same.

In the early matches the Sharks’ determined victories glossed over their offensive blemishes – impurities that came to the surface towards the end of the year when attacking outfits like the Raiders, Storm and Cowboys were hitting their straps.

If they are to consolidate their spot in the finals in the years to come, Cronulla’s attack needs to evolve… and score more than an average of 18.4 points per game.

Missing In Action… Cronulla suffered a series of injuries to key players throughout their season. Dynamic fullback Nathan Gardner busted his knee in his side’s heroic win against the Dragons in Round 6 and never returned – an injury that had particularly significant ramifications for the stifled Sharks attack.

Captain Paul Gallen’s presence was also sorely missed at times, particularly later in the season when his team was struggling. He was limited to just 16 games, a tally coach Flanagan admits is too low from his star player.

Stewart Mills, Nathan Stapleton, Wade Graham and Anthony Tupou also missed matches, adding to the Sharks’ difficulties late in the year.

Turning Point… Cronulla’s final-play loss to the Storm in Round 25’s Monday Night Football had huge ramifications. After holding the advantage for much of the match and leading by a couple of points with just seconds remaining, Melbourne winger Sisa Waqa surprised everyone when darting down the blindside, scoring and handing his side victory. Had the Sharks won, they would’ve finished above the Raiders on the table in sixth place and would’ve secured a home final in Week One of the playoffs. Full of momentum, the Sharks’ season could’ve ended on an entirely different note.

Best Games… It’s hard to overlook the Sharks’ early season home victory over the Storm. Missing inspirational captain Gallen, everyone had written off Cronulla – but no-one told them! Determined to play tough and intelligent football, the Sharks’ played a smart and brutal brand that kept the unbackable favourites on their heels. Led by Bryce Gibbs and Jeremy Smith, and featuring an amazing last-minute series of plays from stand-in fullback Isaac Gordon, the Sharks performed arguably the upset of the year, defeating the Storm – and with their ‘big three’ – 12-10.

Other standout performances included their Round 3 defeat of the Sea Eagles, a shutout of the Dragons in the Round 6 local derby and a 45-4 demolition of the Warriors in Auckland.

Worst Games… Cronulla would be trying hard to forget their Finals Week One performance against the Raiders in Canberra. After a strong opening to the match, the Sharks simply clocked off in the final 20 minutes of their biggest match of the year, allowing the Raiders’ outside backs to run riot… and letting a progression to Finals Week Two slip through their fingers.

Their Round 20 performance against, coincidentally, the Raiders was just as bad. In front of their home fans at Toyota Stadium, Cronulla went missing defensively and with the ball in hand, too, handing Canberra a 36-4 cakewalk.

Other disappointments – although not necessarily bad performances from the players – include the Wests Tigers Round 1 clash and the Panthers Round 21 match. Both one-point losses were heavily influenced by refereeing decisions that were controversial.

Hold Your Head High… Most of the Sharks’ new brigade of offcuts, rejects and seemingly over-the-hill stars performed strongly. Prop Bryce Gibbs had a standout year, running for a career-high number of metres in the season. His strong efforts resulted in selection in the end-of-season Australian Kangaroos squad. Jeff Robson and Todd Carney performed well, particularly earlier in the season. Veterans Gallen and centre Colin Best also had strong years. Wade Graham found his rightful home in the back row and showed his rep potential in a series of strong performances, as did Jayson Bukuya who finally overcame a series of career-threatening injuries. Jeremy Smith – now confirmed as Knights-bound in 2013 – stepped up as captain in Gallen’s absence, winning the Monty Porter award as the Sharks’ Player of the Year.

Coach Shane Flanagan says: “I think [the late-season slide] is down to a number of things,” Flangan tells NRL.com. “We had some key players not training and injured after Origin. ‘Gal’ didn’t train at all during the week post-Origin III, so in hindsight that’s something we just can’t do. He missed a lot of football, ‘Gal’… he only played about 50 per cent of our games which is not ideal and to have him injured at the tail end of the season was not great.

“As was Todd, who with some hamstring injuries wasn’t himself after Origin… they didn’t come out of Origin very well.

“If we’re in the top four from the start to three-quarters of the way through… I just need to manage the tail end a little better and have a little luck with injury and rotate the squad a little bit more so they’re fresh at the end of the year.”

Conclusion… The fairytale finish wasn’t forthcoming for Cronulla in 2012, but following a season that saw the Sharks secure sponsorship with Fisherman’s Friend and Shark energy drink, consolidate their financial future with the approval of their development as well as return to finals football, the pavement has been laid for Cronulla to finally become a major player in the NRL. Things are looking up in the Sutherland Shire.

*Statistics: NRL Stats