Nigel Wall, NRL.com
1. The Todd Carney experiment
Todd Carney is the player who polarises opinion among NRL fans – and even its players – the most. The gifted five-eighth won the Dally M Medal in 2010 after getting his career back on track at the Roosters. But then, inexplicably, he lost all the wheels on his wagon and embraced his former irresponsible self. Enter Shane Flanagan and the desperate Sharks. Flanagan is a no-nonsense coach but he’s also shrewd. And he has empathy. He knows taking Carney on board is a gamble – but the potential payout could be a motza. However, while Flanagan might tolerate some ‘growing pains’ from his new acquisition he will aim to get him settled early. At the height of his powers in 2010 Carney was near the top in all key attacking categories, with 16 tries, 21 line-breaks, 19 line-break assists, 18 try assists and 29 offloads. Last year he scored just six tries and added a meagre eight line-breaks, five line-break assists, four try assists and 14 offloads. Clearly the upside for the Sharks is huge. And if anyone can help knock the rough edges from his attitude it will be Sharks captain Paul Gallen. How they bond is key to Cronulla’s chances of leaping into the top eight.
2. Solid hooker rotation
Paul Aiton and John Morris make way for Isaac De Gois and Jeff Robson as the Sharks look for added creativity and stability around the ruck. De Gois was a star on the rise when he left the Sharks to take over Danny Buderus’s role at Newcastle in 2009; although he played fairly at the Knights, De Gois never grasped the consistency he displayed in his two previous seasons at Cronulla. Unwanted by new Knights coach Wayne Bennett, he returns to the Shire with a point to prove and his partnership with former Eels halfback Robson will give the Sharks some bite. Coach Flanagan told NRL.com he sees Robson as the perfect fit for hooker; Robson’s quick, elusive and with an excellent short passing game (with six try assists last year). The pair are just what Paul Gallen and the Sharks’ new powerful pack need to roll forward with purpose.
3. New pack mentality
Tall timber players Luke Douglas and Kade Snowden may have moved on but their departures have been capably offset by some smart buys. Ben Ross returns to the club, having excelled as the Rabbitohs’ most dependable and valuable prop (average 106 metres plus 25 tackles) last year. He joins formidable Andrew Fifita and Bryce Gibbs, snapped up as a package deal from the Wests Tigers. The change in club will be excellent for Fifita, who didn’t always see eye to eye with former coach Tim Sheens. Fifita is a colossus who possesses a good skills set – he made 75 tackle busts in 17 games last year and Flanagan will be hoping he can puncture the opposition defensive line often so Carney can follow through and wreak havoc. The Sharks have also snared workhorse prop Jon Green who played 23 games off the bench for the Dragons last season, adding a solid half of football each game with good territory and a high defence rate. And Mark Taufua (ex-Newcastle) will add mobility. Throw in Gallen, Jeremy Smith’s mongrel and the new hookers and theirs is a pack to be reckoned with.
4. Better by the Gallen
Over the past few years the Sharks skipper has compiled statistics never reached before, during a period when the NRL has become more taxing and physically demanding than ever. He has been ranked in the top four players for metres gained for the past four years, leading the field in 2010 and 2011. Significantly, Gallen made 184 metres each game last year from an NRL-high 429 hit-ups – and the 10 players ranked straight after him were all backs. Plus he ranked fifth for offloads (with 48). He only knows one way to play – at full throttle. Coach Flanagan won’t be expecting the new buys to take any weight off his captain’s shoulders: he knows ‘busy is best’ is Gallen’s credo. He will be expecting the new players to be inspired to new heights by Gallen’s intensity, however.
5. Deceptive speed
Any side that takes the Sharks for granted out wide will be burned in 2012. Fullback Nathan Gardner showed last year he has the pace, strength (109 tackle-breaks) and guile to create opportunities from nothing. He was a Matt Bowen-like threat chiming into the backline inside the opposition 20-metre zone. Nathan Stapleton, Stewart Mills, John Williams and Isaac Gordon all showed enough to suggest competition for positions in the back three will be strong – although a cloud hangs over Gordon’s future at the club following his guilty plea to a domestic assault. Veteran centre Colin Best remains the glue that will hold their backline firm, while young Chad Townsend is likely to get the chance to fast-track his career linking with Carney in the halves. If they can gel early, look out.