Cronulla Sharks: Season Review

Regular Season
WINS: 5
LOSSES: 19
HOME RECORD: 3 wins, 9 losses (15th)
AWAY RECORD: 2 wins, 10 losses (=15th)
 
After Finals
Did not qualify
 
BEST WINNING STREAK: 4 (rounds 12-15)
LONGEST LOSING STREAK: 10 (rounds 16-26)
PLAYERS USED: 33
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Paul Gallen
TRIES SCORED: 64 (fewest in NRL)
TRIES CONCEDED: 100 (equal 11th)
 
Horror flicks don’t come more gruesome – gut-wrenching injuries, a string of bad luck and a final heart-breaking ending. And that was Cronulla’s 2009 season. So much was expected of the Sharks after their preliminary final finish in 2008 but a combination of off-field controversy, injuries, mid-season exits and plain bad luck saw them finish just above the bottom-placed Sydney Roosters... on for-and-against.
 
So much happened at the Sharks during season 2009 that even their start-of-the-year 25-man roster barely reflected the team that actually took the field most games this season; Fraser Anderson left for Japanese rugby before Round 1, Trent Barrett played just 14 games while Paul Gallen played just 16, Brett Kearney went down in the opening match of the season, Reni Maitua tested positive for drugs mid-season, Ben Ross suffered a neck injury that limited him to one match and Brett Seymour was suspended then had his contract torn up after a serious of alcohol-related incidents.

The Sharks actually got their season off to a good start, winning in tough conditions against the Panthers, but it wasn’t a sign of things to come – 2009 is something players and fans alike wish they could erase from their memories.

Where They Excelled… Well, the Sharks’ effort could never be questioned. Despite entering most clashes with a sub-standard, under-strength and inexperienced team, Ricky Stuart taught his charges to fight – and fight they did. In seasons where a team wins only five matches, blow-out scores are expected. For the Sharks in 2009, that happened only twice, against the Eels (30-0) in Round 21 and the Wests Tigers (56-10) in Round 23.

That willingness to fight is something Stuart will be banking on in the future – and it should hold them in good stead in 2010 and beyond.

Where They Struggled…
The Sharks really struggled to score points... and it’s a pattern that’s reared its ugly head in the past few years. This year Cronulla scored just 359 points, including 64 tries. The best attacking teams – the Wests Tigers and South Sydney – scored more than 550 points and 103 tries apiece. Much can be attributed to the most-of-the-season absence of the combination of Trent Barrett and Brett Seymour. The duo were Stuart’s first-choice selections at no.6 and no.7 – but both missed significant periods of football due to different reasons. Had they been there this could have been different – the same goes with a lot of positions, actually.

Missing In Action… Plenty of Sharks players had years to forget – something that is a common trait when a team experiences such a difficult season. Winger Misi Taulapapa – who in 2008 scored three tries in the Sharks’ qualifying final victory against the Raiders – played only five matches in the NRL this season and spent most of the year playing NSW Cup. David Simmons and Mitch Brown – who had played significant amounts of first grade previously and were expected to step up in the absence of those injured stars – also spent significant periods playing feeder-club football. Karl Filiga – the former Bulldog who was once labelled ‘the next Sonny Bill Williams’ – again failed to live up to the hype, and moved clubs mid-season.

Turning Point…
The Sharks’ close loss to the Rabbitohs in Round 7 at ANZ Stadium had a big impact on their season. They eventually succumbed to South Sydney 32-36 but had an opportunity in the second half to change the momentum of the match when the ball went to David Simmons on the wing. With the line just a handful of metres in front of him and no defenders in sight, all Simmons had to do was take the pass and stroll across the line to give the Sharks a probable victory... but he dropped the ball and a knock-on was ruled. In a lot of ways that moment summed up Cronulla’s season.

Best Games…
The emphatic 46-12 victory against the Broncos in Round 15 provided Sharks fans with plenty to cheer about after four months of misery. Not only was it Cronulla’s biggest victory of the year, it also stretched their winning streak to four. It kept some hope for players and fans alive. The match also provided a major highlight for the season – Blake Ferguson’s try, where three defenders had him tackled and his body was actually over the sideline but suspended in mid-air. It was a thrilling four-pointer that will be relived for many years to come.

Worst Games… The Round 23 capitulation to the Wests Tigers can’t be overlooked. In front of their home fans, the Sharks put in their worst effort of 2009, losing 56-10. In fairness, the Tigers were on fire and in the middle of their would-be run to the finals, but it was Sunday afternoon spoiled for Cronulla fans.

Hold Your Head High… Luke Covell continues to grow as a footballer and a leader. After Paul Gallen was stripped of the captaincy mid-year after claims of racism, and Trent Barrett was forced onto the sidelines injured, Covell was handed the (c). The winger handled himself with dignity in the toughest of circumstances. While the sharpshooting winger didn’t claim any point-scoring honours this season, like he did in 2008, he demonstrated the courage and commitment that’s required to be a first-choice captain. All this from the player Cronulla were unsure they wanted to keep late last season.

Assistant Coach Shane Flanagan Says… “Looking ahead, fans can expect to see us play with the same resolve as in 2009 but expect to see results similar to 2008 when we defended strongly and scored points too.

“We’ll be much better as there won’t be any club issues – it’s a lot steadier at the club now with the new administration – and we plan on getting the club on the right track on the field too. We can – and will – only go up from our efforts this season.

“Our young players all played first grade before they should have – and played too many matches. They were probably mature enough to play two or three matches… but some finished with 18. Guys like Nathan Stapleton, Blake Ferguson and Matt Wright… Ricky [Stuart] and I had pencilled in at the start of the year as first grade possibilities but neither one of us expected them to be relied on as heavily as they were. They’ve been outstanding and did a great job in their debut year.”

Conclusion… The Sharks had a dismal season but there’s some cause for optimism for Sharks fans. After a horrible season things can only get better – on and off the field. With recruits like Adam Cuthbertson (Manly), Paul Aiton (Penrith) and Dean Collis (Wests Tigers), as well as the experience those players returning have gained, all signs point to an improved 2010 season.

Just as well, as Cronulla fans will be demanding it.