Cronulla hooker Michael Ennis says his club is hoping to make a final call on which of three candidates will be the first choice No.1 in 2016 so the side's new-look spine is able to hit the ground running next year.
Cronulla's awful start cost them in 2015, eventually falling one win outside a crucial top-four finish after a strong second half of the year.
They were 0-4 after four rounds in 2015, leading plenty to write them off in what was supposed to be a brighter year than the year from hell in 2014 when a devastating injury toll and ASADA dramas helped hand them a wooden spoon.
But with new recruit and 2012 Dally M Medallist Ben Barba struggling to find his rhythm in his new position of five-eighth, a slow start had plenty of pundits writing off Shane Flanagan's men.
Rookie Jack Bird was blooded at five-eighth, Mick Gordon and Valentine Holmes were swapped around at fullback – along with Barba – and the team's best period (and surge to the finals) came in the mid-late season stretch where Barba was used off the bench with Gordon at fullback, Holmes on the wing and Bird at five-eighth.
With Gordon having since moved to Parramatta and the Sharks picking up halves James Maloney and Chad Townsend, the blue, black and white No.1 jersey will go to one of Bird, Barba and Holmes.
Ennis told NRL.com that with plenty of other changes to the spine, he's hoping Flanagan will decide on a fullback by mid-late January so the new-look playmaking combination will have time to gel prior to Round 1 and hopefully avoid another slow start to a season.
"It's just about us using these next few months wisely in terms of working out who we're going to play in the No.1 for starters, then allowing the four of us to really train hard together and get all our stuff down pat so we can hit the ground running in March," Ennis said.
"The three of them are keen to have a crack at the fullback spot. Benny's training excellent and so is Val and Birdy so there's a wealth of competition which is good – but we also need to get settled.
"I don't think we can wait right up until the [last minute] to work out who's going to play – we need to get some sort of idea who's going to play in that shirt around mid-January to February so we can have a good month and a half before the season starts."
Ennis was the hooker at Canterbury during Barba's stunning 2011-12 seasons (when he finished as the top or equal top try-scorer both years, in addition to his 2012 Dally M win).
Ennis stopped short of pushing for Barba to get first dip at the jersey but was not short on praise for the Mackay product's potential to boost the team from the back.
"My memories of Ben at fullback are as good as it gets. He's dynamite at the back when he's fully fit and at the moment he is so we just have to keep him like that," Ennis said.
"He's training excellent for us at the moment at fullback, he's in a good head space, he's training well, family life's good for him. It's great to see.
"I think he had all pre-season last year with all his eggs in one basket of playing five-eighth and then picked up a suspension there against Melbourne (for two separate grade one incidents) and Birdy came in and took that spot and played well.
"Then Benny sort of filtered in at fullback but to be fair, Benny carried a lot of injuries people didn't know about last year. He had rib injuries and ankle injuries (the latter of which ended his season after Round 20).
"It was just one of those disrupted years for him but he remained positive all year, he did a great job for us off the bench and I think that role that he played for us this year was huge for us but I think he's ready now to really grasp that No.1 so we'll see how he goes," Ennis said.