Nicholas Janzen, NRL.com
1. Belief from the beginning
If there’s one thing the Sharks have shown in 2013 it’s character. Before a ball was kicked the club was drawn into the ASADA investigation saga – and thrown in the harshest of media spotlights. But, as Round 1 showed, they would not be distracted, even in the wake of myriad off-field goings-on – a courageous 12-10 victory over the Gold Coast Titans in front of the Sharks’ home fans a sign of things to come, and an indication the club would refuse to crumble no matter what was said or done during the week.
2. Identifying the errors of their ways
The Sharkies suffered five losses from six games between Rounds 2 and 7 – and, as all good clubs do, they learned from their defeats, licked their wounds and ultimately got their premiership campaign back on track. In Round 2 and 7, in particular, it became clear that errors were choking their attacking efforts – against the Rabbitohs and Bulldogs they committed a whopping 18 and 17 errors respectively. Since then they’ve committed 13 at the most – apart from their Round 23 match against the Dragons, when they committed 18 errors… and won! Amazingly, since their losing streak ended in Round 7, they’re yet to record back-to-back losses, too.
3. Four on the trot
Questions were being asked of Cronulla’s finals prospects following a streak of early losses – but they turned it around in emphatic style from Round 8 to Round 11. With victories over the Knights (21-20), Tigers (30-6), Raiders (30-20) and Rabbitohs (14-12), the Sharks shot from 11th into the top eight… and they’ve been there ever since.
4. Powerful forwards
Cronulla’s pack has been one of the strongest in the NRL – and with the likes of Paul Gallen, Andrew Fifita, Luke Lewis, Wade Graham, Chris Heighington and Anthony Tupou, they should be dominant, too! The Sharks run for the fifth-most average number of metres (1404.8) behind the Knights, Cowboys, Dragons and Storm, but it is that record combined with their offloading ability (10.8 per match – fifth in the NRL) and tackle-breaking power (averaging 29.5 per match – third) that makes their pack such a potent force.
5. ‘Flash’ fires
Former Panther Michael Gordon has provided the Sharks with a level of quality and service from the back they haven’t experienced since the days of David Peachey. Gordon, who possesses lightning acceleration and a thirst for hard work, has been great in the Cronulla No.1 jersey in his first season in the Shire – he averages a whopping 150.6 metres per game, just two metres behind Souths superstar Greg Inglis. Gordon has also recorded 80 tackle-breaks – the same number as Storm boy Billy Slater, although ‘Flash’ has played two fewer matches – and scored 98 points.
6. Paul Gallen’s layoff
Knee and foot injuries have limited the NSW Blues State of Origin skipper’s time on the paddock this season – and the result of the layoff is a fresher, fitter and more determined Cronulla captain. Gallen has only played 14 matches for Cronulla this year – spending significant stints between Round 8 and Round 21 on the sideline – but his lack of gametime could be a blessing in disguise for the often-overworked Sharks star. Since coming back into the side in Round 21, ‘Gal’ has been great, running for 185, 208, 217, 216 and 139 metres. Another ‘rest’ last week due to suspension means Gallen should be fit, firing and in peak physical condition for the Sharks’ finals fling starting on Saturday.
7. Todd Carney confidence
A mature, motivated, more focused and more confident Todd Carney has led the way for Cronulla’s offence this season. One of the favourites to collect the Dally M Medal in grand final week, reformed wild child Carney has been more selective in his running game this season – and his teammates have benefitted. Last year Carney averaged more than seven runs per game while this year it’s a tad less than five, but it’s the running/passing/kicking triple threat that’s kept the opposition guessing in 2013. In addition to four 40/20s, Carney’s averaged a try assist a game in 2013, creating 11 line-breaks and making four himself in the process. As a result of Carney’s increased control and the quality of his service (as well as the addition of Michael Gordon), his team has improved their attack – they average 19.5 points per game this season, compared with 18.4 in 2012.
8. Depth in numbers
Cronulla’s greatest strength in 2013 has been their depth, especially in their forward pack. Sometimes the toughest task for coach Shane Flanagan is deciding who to leave out, whether it’s across the backline or in the pigs. Established first-graders Nathan Gardner, Ben Ross, Nathan Stapleton, Matthew Wright, Bryce Gibbs, Stewart Mills, Mark Taufua, Jon Green and Chad Townsend have all spent considerable lengths of time in the NSW Cup – a sign the club is stronger now than it has been in years past.
9. New recruits
Beau Ryan, Chris Heighington, Luke Lewis and Gordon have fitted in beautifully after arriving in the Shire from other clubs at the start of the season. Aside from the Roosters’ acquisition of Sonny Bill Williams, James Maloney and Michael Jennings, the Sharks’ 2013 recruitment has been better than any other NRL team. Cronulla’s gains have also proved a massive support for the under-siege Sharks who were at the club in 2011 – those who find themselves struggling with the ongoing ASADA investigation. Ryan, Heighington, Lewis and Gordon have been all class, on and off the field.
10. Great escapes
Cronulla won six games by four points or less in 2013 – a series of favourable results that, if reversed, would have seen them miss out on the finals altogether! Courageous, determined, stoic and committed – they’ve been the adjectives often used to describe the Sharks’ efforts this season. And their wins against the Titans (12-10 in Round 1), Knights (21-20 in Round 8), Rabbitohs (14-12 in Round 11), Broncos (19-18 in Round 18), Warriors (18-14 in Round 21) and Dragons (22-18 in Round 23) prove that when the going gets tough, the Sharks get going. In the finals that close-finish experience – and expertise – will prove invaluable.