Take a look at the Cronulla Sharks road to the finals as they prepare to play the Canberra Raider in week one of the Telstra Premiership finals.
1. Kid Carney
1. Kid Carney
Every rugby league team that’s ever been blessed with an in-form Todd Carney has tasted success. That’s largely been the case at Cronulla this year too, where the enigmatic and gifted Carney has found his mojo for the first time since he led the Roosters to the 2010 grand final. In Round 22 he proved just how potent he could be, with 25 solo points in front of a gobsmacked Mt Smart crowd. He might not lead many statistical categories but his presence on the field has provided Cronulla with an X-factor they’ve been lacking for many years.
2. Shire stronghold
Sharks players still talk about the emotional and impassioned speech Shane Flanagan gave to his troops over the NRL pre-season. It was about returning Toyota Stadium to the fortress it used to be, and his words have worked wonders. Cronulla won nearly 70 per cent of their home games this year, a vast improvement on their 11 wins from 36 games over the previous three seasons. With Toyota Stadium secured as one of the most unforgiving graveyards in the NRL, Cronulla have become real threats for the 2012 premiership.
3. Forward march
Led earnestly by captain Paul Gallen, the Sharks’ forward pack has become one of the most feared in the NRL. Names like Bryce Gibbs (24 tackles per game, 130 metres per game), Jeremy Smith (30 tackles per game, six line-breaks) and Jayson Bukuya (24 tackles per game, 58 tackle-breaks) have provided the Cronulla outfit with a formidable engine room. Throw in the rhino-like charges of Andrew Fifita and they are a big reason why the Sharks have made more metres than any other team in the competition (1434 per game).
4. Storm purge
It was the mid-May boilover that sent shockwaves through the NRL. The Melbourne Storm had made it through to Round 10 of the competition without even knowing how to spell “loss”. Then they ran into the Cronulla Sharks at home. Cronulla entered the final 10 minutes behind by four before Jeremy Smith barged over to snatch a memorable win. The result not only dispelled the Melbourne myth, but it affirmed Cronulla as a team to be reckoned with for the first time since 2008.
5. Savage defence
It was a massive problem that Shane Flanagan was desperate to turn around – for three years the Sharks presented about as much defence as the straw house did to the wolf. Having been ranked fourth worst for points conceded in 2009 and 2011, and second worst in 2010, the Sharks have bolstered their defence to find themselves conceding just the fourth fewest points and tries (17.6 and 3.1 respectively) and third fewest line-breaks (3.5 per game). Off the back of huge workloads from forwards including Paul Gallen and Jayson Bukuya, the Sharks have become one of the best defensive outfits in the NRL.
6. By the metre
Cronulla have made more metres this year than any other NRL side, with an average of 1433.7 per game. It’s a huge improvement on last year when the Sharks were ranked 10th with just 1333 metres per game. Cronulla’s biggest metre-eaters are Paul Gallen (who leads the NRL with 199 metres per game), Bryce Gibbs and Matthew Wright (each 126 per game). The Sharks are very much a side that builds their play off power through the middle and the amount of distance they’ve covered is proof that their tactics are working.
7. The wake-up call
Cronulla were flying. They’d won seven of their past nine matches and entered the sheds against wooden spoon specials Parramatta up 20-6. Paul Gallen had proven his ability to back up after a gruelling Origin opener with his second try of the season. Then everything went pear shaped. Cronulla put together probably their worst half of footy this season to let Jarryd Hayne and the Eels back into the game, the Sharks eventually going down 29-20. But it proved to be the wake-up call Cronulla needed – they won their next three on the trot to firmly entrench themselves in the top eight.
8. Brisbane conquered
If ever a side had a bogy ground – it was Cronulla at Suncorp Stadium. That is, until June 29 this year. They’d only triumphed once at the fortress in their history and that was back in 2004. The Sharks entered their Round 17 blockbuster north of the border off the back of a bye and faced a depleted Brisbane outfit. If ever they were going to stake a serious claim for the 2012 Telstra Premiership, it was now. Lock Wade Graham, playing just his third full game of the season, was scintillating for the Sharks – making 32 tackles, setting up two tries and scoring one himself. The 26-12 result will weigh heavily on the Broncos’ minds if the two teams cross paths in the finals race.
9. Captain Courageous
What drives the New South Wales and Cronulla skipper verges on superhuman. It’s also a major ingredient in Cronulla’s bid for this year’s title. Injury has played a part in Paul Gallen’s season, but whenever he’s on the field Gallen is crucial for the Sharks. He makes an average of 27 tackles per game and an incredible 199 metres. Gallen’s closest challenger in that category are Penrith pair Josh Mansour and Michael Gordon (166 metres per game), while the closest forward is North Queensland’s James Tamou (150 metres per game). It’s an intimidating card Cronulla have up their sleeves: to beat us, you have to stop Gallen first. He’s a big reason why the Sharks are so dangerous in second-phase play too (12.3 offloads per game, third most by any team). Gallen makes more per game than any player, with almost four offloads every outing.
10. Beating the bunnies
With 11 minutes to go in Cronulla’s crucial Round 24 match against South Sydney, they were behind by a point. This had been a dour game, only one try apiece, and a loss would have jeopardised the Sharks’ chances of a top-eight spot. Then a Todd Carney-inspired surge saw the black, white and blues race to a 20-7 lead as the fulltime siren sounded. With the win, Cronulla secured their first finals appearance in four years and reminded everybody just how potent they are when things click for them.