Sharks' 2014 Season Review

Before we dive right into the muck, a word of caution: this review – just like the Sharks' 2014 campaign – is not for the faint of heart.
 
Small children, the elderly and those with health conditions, steer clear. There will be no sugar-coating, nor gilding of the lily when it comes to one of the toughest seasons endured by a football club since a bunch of rah rahs upped stumps and started their own mutant form of the 15-man game 114 years ago.

In February 2013 a day declared the blackest day in Australian sport dawned on the horizon for Cronulla, and for the next 18 months the ASADA storm loomed ever-ominously across the waters of Woolooware Bay. 

Last year, the Sharks performed above and beyond in putting the doping scandal to one side and making a determined run deep into September. This year, they did not. And just about the whole Cronulla castle came crumbling down as a result.

Head coach Shane Flanagan was the first to go, not permitted within cooee of the club by a one-year suspension meted out by the NRL. Blockbusting big man Andrew Fifita was next out the door, off to the Bulldogs on a million-dollar deal, only to backflip and re-sign with the Sharks, and then spend the majority of the year sidelined by injury.

Boom 21-year-old hooker Michael Lichaa signed a similarly lucrative deal with the NRL's other blue and white outfit, and found himself swimming amongst the reserve graders at the behest of stand-in coach Peter Sharp.
 
Three months later the Sharks had added just three wins to their account and Sharp had had a gutful, offloading the hospital pass he'd reluctantly accepted at the start of the year onto James Shepherd, who 12 months ago was their under-20s coach. 

In between the Sharks wandered the point-scoring desert for 40 days, setting one hell of an unwanted record in being held to nil in three consecutive matches by the Rabbitohs, Dragons and Manly

When they finally broke the drought with an inspired 24-22 upset of the Broncos, Todd Carney's much-publicised bathroom indiscretion went down like a lead balloon and he was run out of the game as a result.

Hit fast-forward and a casualty ward that hadn't seen a vacancy in months, coupled with the forced retirements of Beau Ryan and Josh Morris due to neck injuries and just two additional wins, sees the Sharks staring down the second wooden spoon in the club's 47-year history and their first since 1969.

And then the ASADA storm hits, rubbing out captain Paul Gallen as well as four other current players for the year and taking the grand total of unavailable Sharkies to 17. In other words, a fully functioning rugby league team. 

Which made their efforts in pushing the Cowboys into golden point just a week after being handed the game's most undesired piece of cutlery by Canberra all the more remarkable. And basically sums up the Cronulla outfit's year. 

Cooked up in the depths of hell, and claiming plenty of good men in its wake, if a plague of locusts had hit last week it would've barely raised an eyebrow after the season the Sharks have endured. 

But throughout it all they've fronted up, only been embarrassed on a few occasions, blooded some promising youngsters in the form of Fa'amanu Brown, Valentine Holmes and Jacob Gagan amongst others and can hold their heads high, particularly with their performances over the final three weeks when they were expected to fall in a heap. And in the words of immortal one-hit wonders D: Ream... 'things can only get better'.

Where They Excelled: Miracle working. Hard to thunk, yes, but how else do you explain the recovery from a 22-point deficit after 53 minutes against the Broncos? And then trumping it eight days later with a rise from the dead, that's from 24-0 down for those who somehow missed it, against the reigning premiers. In the same week they lost Carney and Sharp. And for their third trick? Travelling to Townsville with just four regular first-graders and every man and their dog predicting a massacre, giving the star-studded Cowboys the fright of their lives and requiring a Johnathan Thurston field goal in extra time to kill them off. Yep, folk have been canonised for less.

Where They Struggled: Troubling the scorers. Their 2.41 tries per game were not just the worst in the league, but the club's worst season for crossing the stripe since 1993, and when they went 324 minutes without a try (just short of half the running time of The Lord of the Rings trilogy) it just rammed home the sorry truth of just how toothless the Sharks were. By the final month of the regular season when the ASADA scandal claimed a few more playing scalps Cronulla were flat out scouring the Shire in search of 17 blokes to pull on a jumper, which leads us to...

Missing In Action: Put the kettle on, this could take a while. The Sharks' fantastic four of Gallen, Fifita, Carney and NSW back-rower Luke Lewis – who were all in stellar form during 2013 – never once got on the park at the same time over the course of the follow-up campaign.

Between them the quartet sat out a combined 58 games through injury, suspension, Origin camps and idiocy-induced sackings. Throw in another 26 missed by key men Jeff Robson, Anthony Tupou and Wade Graham, the retirements of Beau Ryan after just three games and John Morris after 11, and the mid-season transfers of Isaac De Gois to Parramatta and Nathan Stapleton to the Roosters and by their Round 25 clash with the Cowboys only nine players from their team photo at the start of the year were available for selection.

Turning Point: December 17, 2013, just short of three months before a ball was kicked in anger. Head coach Shane Flanagan is told to have nothing to do with the club for his part in the ASADA mess, and Sharp is as keen as a haemophiliac at a blood drive to take the gig.
Paul Gallen likens the situation to a prac teacher unable to control a rowdy bunch of school kids, on live radio no less, injuries, off-field distractions and poor form all play their part and before you know it 2014's down the drain.

Best Games: Aside from the two jailbreaks in successive weeks against the Broncos and Roosters, and the near miracle they went within a whisker of pulling off in Townsville, the highlights reels are pretty bare for the Sharkies. But downing top four regulars and finals-bound Penrith, twice, is something for the Shire men to hang their hats on, particularly their 24-20 triumph in Round 8, which came without the services of a hamstrung Todd Carney for the best part of an hour.

Worst Games: Hard to go past that month where they didn't score a single, measly point, and went down 18-0 to the Bunnies, 30-0 to the Dragons and 26-0 to Manly. That one against traditional rival St George Illawarra would've been particularly hard for Sharks fans to swallow given the Dragons at that point were still swimming around the bottom of the NRL sea alongside them. A late-season 48-6 thumping from Melbourne wasn't pretty either, and the 22-12 loss to the Raiders in 'Spoonbowl' handed them an undesirable memento from their season of woe.

Hold Your Head High: The senior men who did make it on the paddock never gave up, with stand-in skipper Graham, Robson and Mick Gordon all trying their darndest when they could've been excused for packing it in. Gordon in particular rounded out the year in fine touch as the only Shark to front up for duty every single weekend, while 23-year-old Graham received just reward for his early season efforts when he was brought into Laurie Daley's extended NSW Blues squad and ear-marked as an Origin player of the future. Likewise youngsters Ricky Leutele, Holmes and Brown who all showed plenty of promise despite finding themselves in the top grade – particularly in the case of the latter two – before they probably should have.

Conclusion: We're willing to put money (not much mind you) on that things can't get any worse for the Sharks. But that doesn't mean it's all sunshine and lollypops down Cronulla way just because 2014's now fading into the rear-vision mirror. Rest assured, we haven't heard the last of the ASADA scandal, and according to Dave Smith, Flanagan's return for next year is not a fait accompli. It's hard to see that porch light that's been burning ever since Harold Holt went for a swim and the Sharks entered the competition some 47 years ago being extinguished by a breakthrough title any time soon, but for now they can almost close the book on the grimmest chapter in the club's history.

SEASON STATISTICS

Wins: 5
Losses: 19
Position: 16th
Home Record: 2-10
Away Record: 3-9
Longest Winning Streak: 2 wins (Rounds 16-17)
Longest Losing Streak: 6 losses (Rounds 21-26)
Players Used: 37
Tries Scored (after 26 rounds): 58
Tries Conceded (after 26 rounds): 111

*Stats: Champion Data