Veteran centre Colin Best believes eternal battlers Cronulla are on the verge of a much-needed golden era as they look to put two disastrous seasons and a rocky start to 2011 behind them against South Sydney on Saturday night.
The Sharks have reignited their seemingly dwindling finals hopes following consecutive wins over Canterbury and the Gold Coast during the past two weeks but after more than a brief honeymoon period, Best is adamant that the Sharks are set to join the NRL elite in the coming years.
Returning to the club where he made his first grade debut way back in 1998, the 32-year-old has been impressed by the emergence of fullback Nathan Gardner and Chad Townsend with the local contingent playing a key role in the side’s recent resurgence.
“I think there is a lot to look forward to,” Best told NRL.com. “We’ve got some great young players here and it’s great to see that they’ve got a few more local juniors coming through.
“With my past experience and what I’ve seen of this club, the good years seem to be when they’ve got a few local juniors in their first grade set-up.
“And the whole place feels different now to what it used to (before Best first left the Sharks in 2003). The club has definitely come a long way. It’s very professional now.
“I’ve been to a few clubs which were quite professional and provided a lot to their first grade teams and this club is right up there with the best of them now. They look after their players and I think we’ll bear the fruits of that.”
Best played 172 games for the Sharks in his first stint at the club and was part of a successful era under coach John Lang in which they claimed the minor premiership in 1999 and reached the finals four years in a row.
Recruited by new coach Shane Flanagan to provide experience to the side’s young backline this season, he said it was always going to take time for Cronulla to turn their fortunes around but he added he was confident the club was finally back on track.
“When I came here confidence was down at the club – they didn’t have great years the past few years – but with a couple of signings and the squad that they’ve built up from the start of the year, I still think we’re a good chance of making the top eight,” he said.
“The good thing about those young guys (Gardner and Townsend) is that they’re key positions too. Nathan has shown that he hasn’t got that second-year syndrome which he would have addressed at the start of the year and Albert (Kelly) had a great start to the year. He’s got plenty of talent.
“The halves have gone really well and then with Chad coming in the past few weeks, he has shown great maturity, he’s got a great kicking game and he has been part of that turnaround.”
Best said he had taken his role as a senior player seriously this season, working closely with up-and-coming juniors Stewart Mills and Matthew Wright.
“I try to help the young guys with attitude when it comes to playing first grade – to treat it as a normal game and to play their natural game,” he said. “Also, being an outside back, we’ve got some pretty good centres and wingers at this club and I like to work with them as much as I can which has been great.
“It’s funny, five years ago if you’d said to me, ‘you’ll be back playing for Cronulla’ I would have laughed but it’s just coming home. It was the right time and it has worked out great. I’m really happy to be able to finish my career here where it started.”
The Sharks currently find themselves two points outside the top eight in 12th position and can close in on a finals spot should they make it three in a row against Souths this weekend. While they will be without inspirational skipper Paul Gallen (NSW Origin) they get back front row dynamo Kade Snowden.
Seemingly out of finals contention only a fortnight ago, Best said a frank discussion amongst the players was behind their form reversal and insisted the finals were still a realistic goal.
“We had a good look at ourselves – at our attitude and our efforts,” he explained. “We questioned a few things internally and I think that has helped. There is also the fact that we’ve had a few players come back. We’ve had some injuries this year and some players missing in some key positions. Having them back has boosted us.”
“I think we’re starting to get some confidence now and winning certainly builds confidence. We’re going into this weekend very confident. We’re at home so there is no reason why we shouldn’t play well… and go well.”
Tomorrow night’s clash also sees Best face off against his former South Sydney team-mates once more. The two sides met in Round 8 with the Rabbitohs scoring a comprehensive 31-8 win but Best said he was confident of gaining some revenge.
“You always like to beat your former club,” he said. “I’ve got a few of them now I guess [Souths, St George Illawarra and Canberra] but it’s a massive game for our team and the Cronulla Sharks. That in itself is enough incentive to play well but especially when you play your old club you do want to play good footy.”
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