Mid-Season Review: Cronulla Sharks

Position after 13 rounds: 14th
Wins: 3
Losses: 9
Byes: 1
Competition points: 8
Differential: -89

The Sharks had us all fooled after three rounds when they bounced back from a big opening-round loss to Canberra with a gritty win over defending premiers St George Illawarra, then blew away the Panthers 44-12.

The new halves combination of Albert Kelly, at home in the five-eighth role after struggling at fullback last year, and off-season recruit Wade Graham were running the side well. Another off-season buy in Jeremy Smith added extra starch to the pack alongside Will Tupou and Paul Gallen, while livewire fullback Nathan Gardner was also creating havoc.

Two close losses followed as the Sharks took a home game to Taupo and led going into the second 40 before succumbing to the Warriors, but the manner of their loss to Manly in Round 5 was excruciating.

The Sharks led 13-12 with less than 90 seconds to go before the Sea Eagles tied it up with a field goal then scored a miracle runaway try after the final siren to snatch the points. The nature of the loss clearly affected the squad as they went on to lose their next three games, and despite a solid Round 10 win over the Roosters they have lost another three on the trot to sit equal last on competition points.

Skipper Paul Gallen has again been titanic and you can’t help but feel for the tireless lock forward (although Ricky Stuart thinks he’s a prop) who, like the rest of the team, is clearly busting a gut week in and week out for little reward. The Sharks have been amongst the worst-hit clubs in terms of injury with key players in key positions absent for long periods, making a tough job even tougher.

Are Things Going To Plan? While many pundits were tipping the Sharks to again struggle to lift themselves off the bottom of the ladder after 14th- and 15th-placed finishes in the past two seasons, these predictions went out the window with the Sharks’ early season form surge.

That just makes their current predicament ever harder to swallow for long-suffering fans who had every reason to be optimistic early in the season.

Despite currently running 14th the Shark are 11th for both average running metres (1306 per game) and kicking metres (573 per game) and eighth for line-breaks (46), suggesting they are often competing strongly in the middle. But they are losing the battle at the tryline, running fourth fewest for tries scored (34) and conceding the third-most tries (48).

Injury Front… It’s not so much the number of injuries hurting the Sharks as it is the fact that key players have been affected. They lost fullback Nathan Gardner, who has four tries and eight line-breaks so far this season, when he injured his ankle in Round 8.

Kiwi Test back-rower Jeremy Smith has been missing since Round 10 with a medial ligament strain and five-eighth Albert Kelly broke his leg in Round 7 putting him out for an extended period.

Key props Luke Douglas and Kade Snowden have missed game time recently through injury while hookers Paul Aiton and John Morris and winger John Williams have also been affected. In all the Sharks have used 28 players, more than any team other than the Tigers and Knights (30 each).

If Only… The Sharks hadn’t managed to lose that un-loseable game against Manly in Round 5. Coach Shane Flanagan told NRL.com that it took the side a few weeks to recover from that one and it showed on the park. Aside from the extra two competition points from that game they went close against Newcastle the following week and looked a demoralised team thereafter, capitulating to the Cowboys (30-12) and Rabbitohs (31-12).

Things could have panned out so differently for the Sharks if they had capitalised on those early performances.

Who’s Flying… Predictably skipper Paul Gallen again leads the way for the Sharks. Gal leads the competition for hit-ups (241) total metres (2017) and average metres (183), and he is also fifth for offloads (30) and 14th for tackle-breaks (50).

Half Wade Graham has also been an important player for the club, adapting well to his new surrounds – the former Panther has six line-breaks, three line-break assists and four try assists.

Needs To Lift… On paper the Sharks have one of the best forward packs in the competition and among them only Jeremy Smith has experienced a long injury layoff. The rest of the pack need to take some of the pressure off Gallen and prove the Cronulla forwards are better than a one-man band.

Anthony Tupou averages 7.4 runs for 54 metres per game despite playing close to 80 minutes each week. Combine this with 25 tackles per game at an effective rate of just 83 per cent and these numbers don’t add up to what you’d expect from a representative-quality back-rower. And despite making plenty of metres Kade Snowden’s effective tackle rate of 81.6 per cent is also contributing to the Sharks conceding 1374 running metres per game.

Coach Shane Flanagan tells NRL.com... “While we’ve been happy with a couple of performances, if you were to break the season down to where we’re at the moment, we’re terribly disappointed so we expect more. We’re getting a few players back from injury, and we’re looking forward to making sure we have a better end to the season than start of the season. Making the finals is a big ask, but it’s not out of the question. For now we’re not looking at the semi-finals, we’re just looking at being consistent and getting some wins on the board.”

Predicted Finish… The Sharks will need to win at least nine of their remaining 12 games to have a hope of playing finals footy, but if they don’t start notching some wins soon they will be in danger of fulfilling NRL.com’s pre-season prediction of taking out the wooden spoon.

With some key players soon to return from injury Cronulla should be able to do slightly better than that, but it’s still hard to see them finishing 2011 much higher than their current ladder position of 14th.

Under-20s… Cronulla’s under-20s are sitting pretty in fifth place on the Toyota Cup ladder with 19 points, just one point outside the top four. They have eight wins, three losses and one draw, and a healthy points differential of +70. They’re on track to not only make the top eight but challenge for a top-four spot. Their halves in particular have been on fire, with five-eighth Penani Manumalealii contributing 15 try assists and his halves partner Chad Townsend, who tasted NRL footy this year, notching 11 try assists.

Cronulla's player stats for 2011

Compare the stats of every NRL team in 2011