Sharks forward Wade Graham was strong against the Titans in Round 6.

Graham reflects on rollercoaster two years

For the first time in 16 years the Cronulla Sharks sit atop the NRL Telstra Premiership ladder and are forever firming as genuine contenders for the business end of the season. 

A methodical recruitment drive over the past few years has seen the likes of seasoned campaigners James Maloney, Luke Lewis and Michael Ennis join the club to link up with some of the game's brightest talent to form one of the best-rounded squads in the NRL.

The result? Eight straight wins to have locals thinking twice about turning the porchlight on for Harold Holt. 

Their success in 2016 is incredible when you consider where the club was positioned two years ago. 

Locked in a lengthy legal dispute with ASADA surrounding an alleged drug supplements regime, the Sharks managed just five wins and were handed the dreaded wooden spoon. 

But it was the off-field ramifications that stung the most, with 10 (at the time) club contracted first-grade players – including some of their most high profile stars – handed backdated 12-month bans that saw them suspended for the backend of the 2014 season. 

The Sharks finished the year with six straight losses and things looked dire, but in a telling show of defiance, the playing group stayed strong.

Despite going through one of the most torturous periods of his life, Sharks backrower Wade Graham said he never once thought about leaving the club.  

"I always knew we had potential and the chance as a team to go far," Graham told NRL.com. 

"That's why despite all the ASADA stuff I signed on for another two years. I always saw that the club had a goal and a direction. I think we were heading there a couple of years ago and then all of a sudden all the ASADA stuff threw a spanner in the works and we were sort of stuck in the mud for a couple of years.

"No one knew what was happening. The players didn't know what was happening. The club didn't know what was happening. 

"Luckily at the end of 2014 there was a resolution to that and from that point on everyone could just move on which was the biggest thing. From then on we've just been moving forward and here we are today."

Any thoughts of a prolonged rebuild were quickly dispelled as the Sharks responded in the best possible way to the previous year's controversy to finish 2015 just outside the competition's top four on points differential. 

"I think last year was a big year for us. After four rounds we were on the bottom of the table, hadn't won a game and we were still learning a lot about ourselves and as a team," the Sharks vice-captain continued. 

"The way we were able to go through the rest of that season was a massive benefit – not just for us as players – but the club as a whole. 

"We set some goals and some high targets and we came within one game of making the top four after going 0-4 to start the season. 

"We managed to go two weeks into the finals and obviously came up against the red-hot Cowboys who gave us a bit of a lesson up there before going on to win the comp. 

"There were a lot of lessons learnt last year and I think this year it's been about making sure we keep learning from them." 

Now in first place on the ladder (level with the Melbourne Storm) the Sharks are in a position to push for their best finish to a season since finishing level on points with minor premiers the Storm and Sea Eagles in 2008. 

It's an opportunity not lost on the players, but Graham knows the job is nowhere near done. 

"It's always a good feeling when you're winning games but you don't get any prizes for being top after 12 rounds," he said. 

"I think the bye came at a good time for us. We've been up for a long time so it's hard to be up every week for an extended period of time so it's a good chance to take a breath, rest and freshen up. 

"There's still a long way and plenty of hard work we have to get through, but it's definitely a goal to finish top four. I think if you get the shot to get in the top four then you give yourself a massive opportunity [at the business end of the year].

"We've managed to get a bit of momentum and stack some wins together so we've put ourselves in a great position. The year's a marathon so we're not carried away."