Cronulla Sharks season preview
For the Sharks, 2014 was simply the season from hell. It was a time that saw Cronulla utilise three coaches, manage a horror injury toll and deal with a string of disappointing off-field incidents. And then they took out the NRL wooden spoon.
After all the dramas, dilemmas and detriments, the club is thankfully back on track or at the very least heading in the right direction.
With previously suspended coach Shane Flanagan cleared to pick up the clipboard once again, the Sharks have a near full-strength squad at their disposal with Luke Lewis and Fa'amanu Brown appearing to be the only two major casualties heading into Cronulla's Round 1 game against the Raiders.
With exciting youngsters Valentine Holmes, Jack Bird and Jacob Gagan making a name for themselves in recent months and former Bulldogs skipper Michael Ennis joining club leaders Paul Gallen and Wade Graham in a star-studded forward pack, it is clear the immediate future of Cronulla is looking more prosperous than it has at any point over the past 12 months.
Gains: Michael Ennis, Mitch Brown (both Bulldogs), Sami Sauiluma (Raiders), Jack Bird, Gerard Beale, Kyle Stanley (all Dragons), Saulala Houma (Newtown), Jayson Bukuya (Warriors), Ben Barba (Broncos)
Losses: Todd Carney (Catalans), Michael Lichaa (Bulldogs), Sosaia Vave (Sea Eagles), John Morris, Beau Ryan, Bryce Gibbs (all retired), Jonathan Wright (Warriors), Tupou Sopoaga (Panthers)
What we know
The Melbourne Storm is renowned for their 'Big Three' but at Cronulla this season there is another trio who will be key to their club's fortunes. Let's call them 'The Three Gs' – Gallen, Graham and Michael Gordon – and they should remain three of the NRL's more consistent players in 2015.
The makeup of Cronulla's team is still very much in the air but you can bet your bottom dollar that these three men, along with Ennis and Andrew Fifita, will be the first picked. If he remains fit, captain Gallen is one of the most terrorising forwards in the game and his deputy Graham is heading down the same path. Gordon is a permanent fixture at fullback after being the only Shark to play every game last season, and will wear the No.1 despite the arrival of former Dally M-winning fullback Ben Barba – who is set to slot into Todd Carney's old five-eighth role.
For every certainty at Cronulla this season there are another five unknowns lurking in the background. Will they remain injury-free? How will they respond to last year's disappointing campaign? Will Blake Ayshford recapture the form that saw him make the Auckland Nines Team of the Tournament? And what are they going to do with all of their classy back-rowers?
Of course none of this will matter if Barba and Jeff Robson don't strike up a classy halves combination quick smart. Flanagan has said already they plan on using Barba much like they used Carney – as an attacking foil working off Robson's direction and organisation. Barba played his final eight games at Brisbane at five-eighth with very limited results so seeing the flair of Barba link up with the old-school Robson is an interesting proposition.
Sure, Holmes, Gagan, David Fifita and Junior Roqica all made their NRL debuts last season but the excitement surrounding them does not compare to that of the hype surrounding Jack Bird following his brilliant showing at the Auckland Nines. Bird is yet to make his debut and has spent the past few seasons biding his time in the NYC at the Dragons. Adept at playing in most positions, the under-20s NSW representative and Junior Kangaroo looks set for a future in the centres and will be pushing Gerard Beale and Ricky Leutele hard for a spot in Flanagan's first-choice team.
Room for improvement
You don't win the wooden spoon by playing well, and there is room for improvement in almost every attacking facet for the Sharks this season. They scored the fewest tries and points in the competition, made the fewest metres, conceded the second-most tries and made the second-fewest line breaks of any NRL team last year. Defence is less of a concern – surprisingly they were the sixth best team in the NRL when it came to missed tackles in 2014 – so more flair in attack will be their top priority this season.
Cronulla have more back-rowers than you can poke a stick at, which has arguably hurt the club in terms of their prop stocks. There are seven spots (including all four interchange spots) for Gallen, Graham, Lewis, Anthony Tupou, Jayson Bukuya, Chris Heighington and Tinirau Arona to fight over.
Between them, only Gallen and Arona have played prop previously and they may prove the only back-up for starting front-rowers Fifita and Sam Tagataese, especially considering Flanagan probably won't start Tim Robinson, David Fifita, Matt Prior or Saulala Houma over any of the aforementioned seven men. Otherwise the Sharks are fairly balanced across the park, buoyed by utilities Holmes, Kyle Stanley and Dallas Wells.
Barnstorming big men Gallen ($554,000) and Fifita ($535,000) are both elite NRL Fantasy players – capable of notching big tackle counts as well as huge numbers of run metres and tackle busts. Cronulla's top value buy is promising rookie Bird ($128,000) – assuming he gets a start.
Join the Sharks Verified Fantasy League - League code: LNDY53JJ
Flanagan will be close to the most heavily scrutinised coach in the NRL this season. After being suspended for his role in the Sharks' 2011 supplements program for the entirety of last season, Flanagan has returned to make amends and help build the club back up after their torturous year.
When it comes to on-field results, Flanagan isn't too badly placed having helped lead the Sharks to two finals series in his three previous seasons in charge (seventh in 2012, fifth in 2013). He has a roster full of talent at his disposal, and if he gets them to click quickly across the park then a finals berth won't be out of reach.
If Robson and Barba can strike up a quick combination then the Sharks are already better off. Expect an improved season if their big guns can stay on the park but a finals finish may be still another season away. NRL.com prediction: 10th