Matt Encarnacion, Western Sydney Correspondent
Imagine, for moment, that the "Blackest Day in Australian sport" never happened; that ASADA was still an anagram we never bothered to learn the meaning of.
Imagine if Shane Flanagan and his troops weren't tainted with what has become the most confusing, frustrating and daunting period in the club's history. The possibilities are endless.
Sadly though, for everyone involved, they're also irrelevant.
If 2013 was considered a write-off due to the drugs scandal that engulfed all those in the Shire, then the outlook for 2014 isn't much better. Not when their provisionally banned coach isn't even allowed in the ground at the moment.
But if there's any shred of hope, any silver lining that interim coach Peter Sharp can take heed of ahead of what's going to be another tense season off the field, it's that the group he's babysitting gritted their teeth all the way to a respectable sixth place finish last year.
A valuable crop of forwards in Jayson Bukuya, Ben Ross and Mark Taufua, as well as the error-riddled Ben Pomeroy, have all departed. But the loss of promising pair Tyrone Peachey and Chad Townsend in particular is arguably the biggest hit of all to what is an already battered mid-section of the team.
In their place enters another former Tiger (that's six and counting) in Blake Ayshford and Dragons forward Matt Prior, both of whom will be hoping a change of address can spark their stagnating careers. A couple of cheap, old heads in Eric Grothe Jnr and Daniel Holdsworth will be handy at different stages, too.
The draw has been kind – they have just four repeat games against top-eight teams from 2013 – and at this stage of the year, they're relatively healthy. The veteran core of Todd Carney, Luke Lewis and Paul Gallen will have to manage their delicate bodies for another arduous campaign, where the biggest battle is off the field than on it.
Still, even without the head coach, the Sharks have shown that, led by a skipper who can literally get up off the canvas, they can overcome the odds and be there when it counts. And imagine what that would be like.
Gains: Blake Ayshford (Wests Tigers), Eric Grothe Jnr (retirement), Daniel Holdsworth (Hull FC), Matt Prior (Dragons).
Losses: Jayson Bukuya (Warriors), Jon Green (Broncos), Stewart Mills (Broncos), Tyrone Peachey (Panthers), Ben Pomeroy (Catalan), Ben Ross (retired), Mark Taufua (retired), Chad Townsend (Warriors).
How They'll Play It
Just like any other game. It's the oldest cliche in the book and one that makes every rugby league hack want to rip their eyes out of its socket. But there's no use going away from what worked last year, and that was using the adversity of the ASADA scandal to build a siege mentality that meant the Sharks' happiest place was on the battlefield.
It runs like clockwork: Gallen and Fifita will do the gruntwork, and then it's a matter of relying on Carney to run across field and unlock defences with some angled runners.
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Michael Lichaa. Sooner or later, the club's got to start injecting some kids into the line-up, and this 20-year-old hooker looms as the perfect candidate.
With 22-year-old winger Sosaia Feki the most inexperienced player in our strongest 17 with just 22 games, the next is 24-year-old second-rower Wade Graham, who's already played 107. In fact, Feki is the only player in that line-up with less than 86 career games.
Lichaa will have to nudge his way past experienced duo John Morris and Isaac De Gois, but he's got the footwork, speed and creativity to do so.
The Question Marks
The Sharks ranked third in offloads and in tackle breaks last season but were still the only team in the top eight not to average 20 points or more. Are there enough attacking weapons in this line-up?
Can Todd Carney's troublesome hamstring and Paul Gallen's enormous workload last another long-season?
Will Andrew Fifita remain in rugby league – let alone Cronulla – next season, and if talk about his future lingers, how much of a distraction will that be?
The most important questions though, centre around the ASADA scandal. How much more can the playing group withstand all the drama? How much will the loss of Flanagan impact on their on-field ability? And what will happen when the findings are finalised?
Who Needs To Lift
Someone, anyone, needs to score more tries than the nine Andrew Fifita crossed for last season. It's remarkable, to the point of embarrassment, that it was Cronulla's bench front-rower who led the team in meat pies last year. And we're not talking the edible ones. Michael Gordon (8), Feki (7), Bukuya (7), Ryan (7) and Robson (7) all were close, but the Sharks are in dire need of a genuine try-scoring threat. Not even new recruit Blake Ayshford (2) had much luck last year.
How's Their Depth
In Nathan Gardner, Nathan Stapleton, Ricky Leutele and Eric Grothe Jnr, the Sharks have a quartet of serviceable backups for their entire backline. There are options in the halves as well with the experienced Daniel Holdsworth or talented youngster Penani Manumalealii. In the forwards, unless Matt Prior can force his way onto the bench, there'll be premiership-winning experience on the sidelines, while Tinirau Arona, Siosaia Vave, and Tim Robinson have played enough NRL to know what it takes.
The James Shepherd-coached NYC side isn't without some ability either, with Nines standouts Valentine Holmes and Fa'amanu Brown showing they've got a big future ahead.
NRL Fantasy Bankers
In terms of hard-working Fantasy forwards it doesn't get much better than Sharks prop Andrew Fifita ($476,100) and skipper Paul Gallen ($423,200). Gallen has the added bonus of being a dual position prop/second-rower while Fifita will be one of the most coveted players in Fantasy after his monumental performances last season. Todd Carney ($321,800) isn't a bad Fantasy option at all in the halves, and is priced a fair bit cheaper than the likes of Daly Cherry-Evans, Adam Reynolds and Aidan Sezer.
With a stint in charge of the Northern Eagles/Manly, Peter Sharp has been around long enough to know the ins and outs of running an NRL side and while the Sharks were able to withstand the dramas of last season, it remains to be seen whether they can repeat the effort without Flanagan.
Nevertheless, this is Sharp's third year in the Shire, and he's got a top eight squad that shouldn't be expecting a drop off.
The Sharks are too talented not to be in the top eight and they'll get there as long as the ASADA scandal doesn't derail their season and they get a full year of Todd Carney.
1. Michael Gordon, 2. Sosaia Feki, 3. Blake Ayshford, 4. Johnathan Wright, 5. Beau Ryan, 6. Todd Carney, 7. Jeff Robson, 8. Bryce Gibbs, 9. John Morris, 10. Sam Tagataese, 11. Luke Lewis, 12. Wade Graham, 13. Paul Gallen (c). Interchange: 14. Andrew Fifita, 15. Chris Heighington, 16. Isaac De Gois, 17. Anthony Tupou