It’s amazing to think the Sharks – after copping so much criticism so far this season, after their coach resigning, after another CEO leaving the club, after copping eight losses, including five 20-point-plus thrashing so far – are still alive and swimming and a chance of making the top eight in 2010.
Sure, they’ve got the worst for-and-against of any team (-111); yep, they’ve scored the least points (181); okay, they’ve won just four matches… but as of the end of Round 13, the team from the Shire sit just two wins outside the top eight.
The season started poorly for the Sharks – an unlucky 14-10 loss to the Storm; a 30-16 slashing at the hands of the Warriors; a 30-8 mauling by the Rabbitohs. “Just like last year,” critics screamed in column inches across the country, referring to the Sharks’ five wins, 19 losses record in 2009.
Then came the return of Tim Smith to the NRL; he played a guiding hand in his comeback-match win against his former club, the Eels. Scoreless at halftime, the Sharks ground out an emotional and deserved victory – their first since Round 15 last year – before in went pear-shaped yet again.
Embarrassing thrashings at the hands of the Sea Eagles at Brookvale Oval (40-12) in Round 5 and the Broncos 44-16 the week after saw those same critics punching away at their computer keyboards again.
However, a more attacking performance in Round 7 saw the Sharks return to the winners’ circle against the Knights. Another win against the Eels at Parra – albeit after significant losses to the Dragons (38-0) and the Panthers (34-14) – and an emphatic performance against the Roosters in Round 13 have the Sharks teetering on the verge of respectability… and a potential finals series if they continue to improve in the second half of the season.
Are Things Going To Plan?
A new-look team at the start of the season, with seven NRL-standard recruits, he must’ve known things would’ve taken a while to gel. Perhaps things are starting to come together?
However, most worrying for Stuart must be his side’s inconsistency – the Sharks have not won back-to-back matches this season… or since Round 13 last season.
Injury Front… The Sharks haven’t fared too badly in the casualty ward so far in 2010 – and they’ll be praying their luck continues if they’re to make a dent on this year’s competition. So far Ben Pomeroy – who’s been in and out of first grade – has spent time on the sidelines, along with Eels recruit Josh Corboda (due back Round 15).
The major blow so far this season has been the injury to Luke Covell. The sharp-shooting goal-kicker suffered a knee injury when attempting to tackle Jarryd Hayne in Round 4, and he hasn’t played since. He ruptured his ACL, but hopes radical surgery will have him back on the field in time to earn a new contract.
The return of Reece Williams (concussion, after enduring a blood-clot operation last year) is up in the air. But the good news is John Mannah (lymphoma) is slated for a NSW Cup return this week (NRL Round 14).
If Only… The Sharks’ attack had clicked into gear a little earlier. Their recent routing of the Roosters was the first time the club had scored 40 points in one match in almost a year.
It’s been too disjointed – maybe because of the high turnover of players – and the sleight of hand too slow. But, perhaps after their most recent performance, things are on the improve.
Who’s Flying… Cronulla’s forward pack continues to chew up the metres and keep their team in matches. Paul Gallen (averaging 167 metres a game), Luke Douglas (117 metres) and Kade Snowden (115 metres) lay a perfect platform for their halves to start scheming.
Then there’s the young blood, in particular fullback Nathan Gardner and winger Isaac Gordon. The speedsters have added much-needed acceleration at the rear for the Sharks – both have scored some spectacular long-range tries and Gardner (averaging 132 metres) especially looks to be a top prospect.
Needs To Lift… Centres Dean Collis and Taulima Tautai need to put their stamp on the Cronulla backline. At the moment, even in a dominant team performance, the three-quarters seem to lack impact and input – and it’s not as if they’re not capable.
Collis has already shown this season he’s a polished performer at times, showcased by a neat stepping effort that resulted in a try against the Knights.
Tautai, too, can be a handful… but he’s opted to kick the football too often this season when the better play most of the time would’ve been to back his ability and strength.
If they get it right they’ll both be more than handfuls for the opposition.
Hooker John Morris tells NRL.com… “The nature of the competition and the fact that some teams above us have only won a couple more games than us means we’re still in the hunt. It’s surprising – a couple of wins in the past few weeks, the bye this week and we’re not far from the top eight.”
“We’ve just got to play for the full 80 minutes – often we have a good first half but not go on with it. Against Brisbane [in Round 12] was a good example. When we have a good completion rate – something like 85 per cent – stats show we don’t get beaten.”
Predicted Finish… With wind in their sails a finals position is possible, but depth in key areas could be a problem should a key member of their team go down. Maybe 10th – 12th.
Under-20s… Also there or thereabouts in 11th position, with five wins and six losses. However, a big loss for the Toyota Cup unit is the promotion of Gardner to the NRL – at this stage most likely for the remainder of the season – and a lot will depend on how they cover the loss.
Gardner had scored seven tries in eight Toyota Cup appearances before his elevation. The Sharks’ past two NYC matches have resulted in four-point defeats.