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Gains: Michael Gordon (Panthers), Luke Lewis (Panthers), Jonathan Wright (Bulldogs), Beau Ryan (Tigers), Chris Heighington (Tigers), Tupou Sopoaga (Bulldogs).

Losses: Tyson Frizell (Dragons), Colin Best (retirement), John Williams (retirement), Josh Cordoba (retirement), Jeremy Smith (Knights).

Giant strides were taken by the Sharks on and off the field in 2012, and this season Cronulla supporters genuinely believe their team can go a few steps further in the hunt for their elusive first premiership. 

Following a year that saw the Sharks shore up their financial future through the signing of a $300-million land development deal that wiped its sizeable debts, Cronulla can now concentrate on playing football in the knowledge the club’s future is secure. 

What’s exciting the Cronulla fans most this year, though, isn’t the club’s positive financial outlook – it’s the fact the team re-entered the NRL finals in 2012, and the 2013 season looks even more promising. Last season the Sharks looked likely to secure a top-four position and a home finals match, but a combination of injuries and big-game inexperience saw them slide down the table and, eventually, out of the finals race just one week deep, ending the season with three losses on the trot. 

However, the experience they gleaned from the playoffs, combined with the signing of some of the game’s biggest names, have Cronulla fans justifiably enthused about 2013. Former Panthers Michael Gordon and Luke Lewis – both NSW reps – are just two of a raft of signings secured following an ambitious spending spree. Others include workaholic former Tiger and English representative Chris Heighington, versatile utility back Beau Ryan, another ex-Tiger, and Bulldogs grand final player Jonathan Wright.

The new additions complement a side that features arguably the best forward pack in the competition (Cronulla finished second in the league for metres gained in 2012 with 1410.4 per match). Heighington and Lewis will be battling for back row spots in a pack that also features Paul Gallen (193 metres and 52 offloads in 2012), Andrew Fifita (107 metres and 76 tackle busts), Bryce Gibbs, Jayson Bukuya, Wade Graham and Anthony Tupou. Their backline isn’t quite as star-studded, but with Gordon, five-eighth Todd Carney (12 try assists and 12 line-break assists) and the at-times destructive Ben Pomeroy, they’re certainly dangerous.

Cronulla fans are optimistic: could the previously unthinkable and unattainable – a premiership – materialise after 45 years of toil in 2013? Never say never…

How They’ll Play It
Don’t expect the Sharkies’ dog-on-a-bone fight and mongrel to disappear now a bit of class has been added to their line-up. Cronulla prides itself on doing the one-percenters right and ‘grinding’ teams out of games. It mightn’t make for the prettiest viewing on occasions, but Flanagan and co. aren’t bothered in the slightest – they just want to win. 

That said, there’ll no doubt be an increased expansiveness to the Sharks’ game in 2013 – with the addition of wide-running back-rower Lewis and fullback Gordon, there’s more incentive for their halves to spread the ball early. (Gordon’s last full season in the NRL, in 2010, resulted in 16 tries and a total of 270 points.) Look for a similar up-the-guts focus from the Sharks in 2013, with a dash more ball out the back.

Expect HUGE Things From…
Panthers recruit Lewis has plenty to prove at his new home in the Shire. At first unwanted as Penrith captain, Lewis was granted a release – then the bidding war and tug-of-war began. Eventually Cronulla, through the influence of Blues captain Paul Gallen and former teammate Wade Graham, headed off Newcastle, Wests Tigers and Parramatta to secure Lewis’ services for four years on a deal rumoured to be worth as much as $1.8 million.
Now it’s up to the NSW and Australian star utility to prove his worth to his new team and supporters – and show his former coach what he’s truly missing. Certainly look for him to improve on the 13 try assists he conjured in 2012 – the most by any Penrith player.

Bonus Points
The Sharks’ recruitment brings a huge amount of finals experience to the club. In Lewis, Gordon, Wright, Ryan and Heighington, Cronulla have secured the services of grand final representatives, Origin and Test stars and individuals who’ve played on the game’s biggest stage. Cronulla, as a team, mightn’t have a wealth of big-game experience, but that collective experience means that when – and if – the team makes it to the pointy end of the season, there’s absolutely no reason whatsoever for the black, white and blue to be overwhelmed by the occasion.

The Question Mark
How do two electric fullbacks fit into one line-up? It’s a headache Shane Flanagan is probably happy to have – and one that’ll likely persist in his temples every day leading up to Round 1. reckons both Nathan Gardner and Michael Gordon need to be somewhere in the Sharks’ starting 13 if the team is to prove a genuine title threat in 2013… but who’s going to budge? Gordon’s versatility could see him slotted into the centres – arguably the weakest part of the Cronulla squad – alongside Ben Pomeroy, Ricky Leutele or Jonathan Wright. 

The Sharks Archilles’ heel last season was crossing the stripe – they scored just 18.4 points and 3.2 tries per game (ranked 13th): having two elusive, game-breaking ball-runners in the side could help alleviate the point-scoring problem.

Who Needs To Lift?
Almost every play in modern-day rugby league begins and ends with the hooker – the dummy-half is arguably the most crucial position in an entire team. For the Sharks to have a successful season, they need their first-choice hooker Isaac De Gois to fulfill his potential. The former Tiger and Knight is, at his best, a defensively tough, clever and highly competitive No.9. Below par, though, his service is questionable and his attacking game is limited. 

The potential is there for De Gois to join the top echelon of hookers in the game… if he concentrates on doing the little things well first. Good, reliable service from dummy-half, a developing kicking game and an improved running game could secure his spot as the Sharks’ long-term hooker. There’s pressure from within, though – under-20s rake Michael Lichaa is one of the highest-rated juniors running around and is expected to see first grade at some stage in 2013. 

How’s Their Depth?
Shane Flanagan’s squad is as deep as it’s been in a long time – there are great cover options for the coaching staff across a range of key positions, especially in the halves, at fullback and across the forward pack. 

Should five-eighth Carney or halfback Jeff Robson go down, experienced back-up Chad Townsend is waiting in the wings, as is highly rated youngster and Junior Kiwis halfback Penani Manumalealii. At fullback, Gordon and Gardner will do battle, and in the scrum a whole host of positions are up for grabs. The forwards’ fight will be the most interesting, with several established first-graders likely to be forced to spend some time in the NSW Cup. 

The one obvious weakness however is at centre, with Ben Pomeroy, Ricky Leutele and Jonathan Wright likely to battle for two jerseys. All candidates are either inexperienced or inconsistent – coach Flanagan will be asking for this group to really step up and improve individually.

Dream Team Bankers
For more than seven years now, a large percentage of Dream Team coaches have signed up Paul Gallen. The workaholic Shark continues to score very well on the back of his super-human number of runs, tackles and metres gained, but this year we’re urging you to exercise caution when considering the NSW captain. Injury restricted Gallen to just 16 appearances in the black, white and blue in 2012 – and coach Flanagan has suggested he’ll be given less game time this season to manage his weary body. At more than $500,000, he doesn’t represent great value for those looking for a bargain buy, either. 

Our suggestion is to look at some of the Sharks’ other back-rowers – Luke Lewis ($343,700) and Jayson Bukuya ($279,800) in particular – for increased bang for your buck.

The Coach
Shane Flanagan has done an admirable job with the Sharks since taking over in 2010, but now he has a different challenge – meeting some seriously high expectations. The past few seasons, little has been expected of Cronulla, and last season some would say they overachieved by making the finals. This year, though, Flanagan has a seriously strong squad at his disposal – fans are talking titles; experts predicting playoffs. Anything short of that would be a huge disappointment for the Sharks board, and a result that could potentially see them reassess a deal that ties coach Flanagan to the club until the end of 2014. 

Last season was one of new beginnings for the junior Sharks following the promotion of a host of stars including Chad Townsend and Stewart Mills. As a result of the turnover of talent, the Sharks failed to qualify for the finals, finishing 10th. 

Cronulla’s new-look side finished with 11 wins, and with a year’s experience now behind the new squad there’s plenty of reason for optimism. 

Keep an eye on highly rated hooker Michael Lichaa; Reece Davidson, son of former Rabbitohs and Cronulla hardman Les; and Winstone Asotasi, younger brother of Roy.

Predicted Finish
We can’t see the no-frills Sharks missing the eight this season… but from there it’s a big step up to winning the comp. If injuries strike other teams’ key players it’s a possibility. What was Jack Gibson’s old saying? “Waiting for Cronulla to win a premiership is like leaving the porch light on for Harold Holt.” Better leave that porch light on just in case! Although our predicted finish is for the bottom half of the eight.

*Statistics: NRL Stats
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