Cronulla Sharks 2016 season preview
Last year Cronulla put their 2014 annus horribilus behind them to surge into the heavyweight category, falling just a win short of a top-four finish. With gun five-eighth James Maloney joining a side stacked with representative forwards and strike outside backs the Sharks are pumped up for the season and there's no reason they can't get even better.
Gains and losses
Gains: James Maloney (Sydney Roosters), Chad Townsend (New Zealand Warriors), Jesse Sene Lefao (Manly Sea Eagles), Jordan Drew (Brisbane Broncos), Josh Cleeland (Ipswich Jets), Joseph Paulo (Paramatta Eels), Kurt Capewell (Ipswich Jets), Matt McIlwrick (Sydney Roosters)
Losses: Michael Gordon (Parramatta Eels), Blake Ayshford (New Zealand Warriors), Josh Addo-Carr (Wests Tigers), Jeff Robson (New Zealand Warriors), Kyle Stanley (retirement), Curtis Scott (Melbourne Storm)
James Maloney and Chad Townsend form a brand new halves pairing at the club while the Sharks have plenty of options to replace departed fullback Michael Gordon with young guns Jack Bird and Valentine Holmes plus former Dally M winner Ben Barba on the books. Joseph Paulo adds even more depth to an already strong back row.
What we know
The things that made the Sharks a threat against any and every team last year are still in place: a robust forward pack bursting with ball-playing and offloading skills, and a willingness to scrap and fight a win the hard way right up to the 80th minute. With veteran skipper Paul Gallen again at the helm, Wade Graham getting better virtually every game he plays, and the likes of Andrew Fifita, Luke Lewis and Chris Heighington all on board these facets of Cronulla's game will be at the forefront again.
A completely new spine may take time to gel, and how the Jack Bird/Ben Barba/Valentine Holmes fullback conundrum plays out will be one to watch. Barba looks to have shaken off last year's injury woes and will be pressing for a starting spot and while Bird had a stunning debut season at five-eighth his short-term future may be better served at centre. We're always reluctant to question the age of champion players but Gallen and Lewis aren't getting any younger so how long they can maintain their phenomenal standards is another unknown.
Former Ipswich Jets half Josh Cleeland and centre or back-rower Kurt Capewell would both do a good job if given a chance in first grade. Jordan Drew is another up and comer to watch in the outside backs while forgotten men Nu Brown and Jacob Gagan will be desperate to make up for lost time after injury-ruined 2015 campaigns.
Pretty solid. There will be an experience gulf in the halves if either of Maloney or Chad Townsend go down but there are some talented youngsters waiting in the wings. It's a similar story at hooker if Michael Ennis cops an injury but there are still players on hand who can jump in. There are plenty of forwards jostling for spots – and plenty of those have first grade experience – and no shortage of youngsters ready to pounce if a spot in the backline opens up.
Gallen ($536,00) is an all-time Fantasy gun but isn't even the team's most expensive player – that honour falls to tackle-busting, try-scoring, big-minute prop Andrew Fifita ($543,000). Wade Graham ($463,000) joined the Fantasy elite last year while Jack Bird ($400,000) went from cash cow to keeper in the blink of an eye.
Shane Flanagan emerged from the dark years of the club's ASADA dramas with the support of the club and players and a contract extension. He repaid the faith last year by guiding his side to the second week of the finals and has been part of a successful off-season's recruitment. With his current deal running through to 2017 it would take some pretty serious underperformance this year to put his job in any jeopardy.
The Sharks are one of very few sides who should be a lock for top eight and if they get a decent run of luck in terms of injuries a top four finish is very much attainable. Even top two isn't out of the question but third or fourth looks more likely.