New Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan has backed the youngest halves pairing in the Telstra Premiership to provide his side with the attacking spark they have lacked in recent years when they open their 2011 campaign against Canberra on Sunday.

While the Raiders have their own concerns amid rumours that star halfback Matt Orford is in doubt with injury, Flanagan has taken a punt on former Penrith five-eighth Wade Graham and rookie Albert Kelly as his chief playmakers this season as he looks to remould the Sharks as a premiership powerhouse.

The pair boast just 47 games between them – 42 of those from Graham – but the Cronulla coach said he was excited about what the pair would bring to his side over the coming months.

“I think it’s our future there,” he said. “One is 19 and the other has just turned 20 so they are young but if you look around the NRL there are young halves everywhere.

“The good thing is that Wade has played almost 50 first grade games and Albert has had a taste of it. They’ve both got ability and they’re both strong kids – they’re not afraid of anything – so although we might not see the best of them first up, they will definitely hold their own and as time goes on they’ll continue to improve.”

Kelly endured a nightmare debut last season, fumbling his way through the Sharks’ Round 3 loss to South Sydney and conceding two tries with disastrous errors as his confidence crumbled. But Flanagan said it was unfair to judge the youngster on past performances after he was thrown into the deep end in an unfamiliar position.  

“We always bought Albert as a half, it was just that at that time Nathan Stapleton got hurt and we didn’t have an established fullback,” Flanagan explained. “Albert had played a bit if fullback in lower grades at Parramatta so we didn’t have many other options.

“He is actually a real confident kid. I think it affected him a little bit last year – affected his confidence – and he probably wondered if he would get another chance at it but he has trained real well in the off-season and has put on a bit of size. Confidence isn’t a problem for Albert.”

More importantly, Flanagan sees Kelly and Graham as two men that can break open a game for the Sharks.

The club has struggled to score points over the past two seasons – ranking last in the NRL both years – but with Nathan Gardner having established himself as an exciting prospect at fullback and strike centre Colin Best returning home, there is a genuine belief in the Shire that they can again become an attacking force.

“That’s certainly the goal. We’re not going to be the flashiest side in the comp in the early rounds so we’re going to have to defend really well but I’d like to think now that with Albert Kelly and Nathan Gardner in his second year, that we’ve got a few more points in us,” Flanagan said.

“And although I haven’t made a whole lot of changes, I’ve made a few changes to the way we’ll play and obviously we’ve had a few changes in personnel too which probably makes it quite different.

“We’ve got Jeremy Smith and two new halves and Colin Best, so it’s a bit of a new-look team compared to last year.”

Ironically, Sunday’s halves battle was shaping as one of the great mismatches when it comes to experience, with Canberra No.7 Matt Orford alone boasting almost five times as many NRL games as Kelly and Graham combined – although NRL.com hears Orford remains in serious doubt for the opening rounds and is a 50:50 chance at best of running out on Sunday.

Orford has been battling an abductor strain and while the Raiders have refused to confirm or deny his availability, Flanagan said he was well aware of the situation.

“I’ve heard some rumours that he could be out,” he said. “I don’t really know but I hear he hasn’t trained and he had surgery over the over the off-season… but I’m not real worried about them, I’m worried about us.

“Having said that, whether he’s out or they play a young kid or Alan Tongue in the halves we’ll have a similar attitude to it. 

“Orford hasn’t played for a while, any young kid they put there won’t have played for a while either and Tongue is out of position so we’ve got a job to do there either way.”

Late News: 
  • Parramatta is sweating on the fitness of prop Fuifui Moimoi for tomorrow’s clash with the Warriors. Moimoi wasn’t named in the original squad on Tuesday because of an arm injury but has travelled with the side to Auckland;
  • Wests Tigers props Bryce Gibbs and Todd Payten are in doubt for Monday night’s clash with Canterbury with knee and calf problems respectively; and
  • Dragons speedster Brett Morris will undergo a late fitness test ahead of tomorrow night’s trip to the Gold Coast due to a hip pointer injury, but is expected to play.
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