Sharks look to generation next at Nines
Sharks skipper Wade Graham says his side will approach this weekend's Downer NRL Auckland Nines as an opportunity to blood youngsters with an eye to ensuring the Shire is in good hands when older heads move on.
While winning the tournament on the back of their first ever Telstra Premiership win would be an incredible achievement, Graham said the priority would be readying Cronulla's new breed for the rigours of week-in-week-out footy against seasoned campaigners.
"We're here to compete and to hopefully go well and win, but we're also using this weekend as an opportunity for our younger guys to develop," Graham told NRL.com at the Captains Call in Auckland.
"We want to show them what it's all about, playing footy for the Sharks. We've got a big senior squad this year, a lot of juniors and not too many guys in between.
"There are plenty of youngsters here and us senior guys want to make sure they have an enjoyable trip and hopefully get the best out of them on the footy field."
Almost half of Cronulla's Nines squad played in last year's grand final win over the Storm, but the Sharks have also brought eight players who are yet to make their NRL debuts, including Kyle Flanagan – the son of coach Shane Flanagan.
Graham said while the outside world would focus their attention on the club's more established players, internally the Sharks will use the weekend to unearth future talent.
"We've got eight guys who played in the grand final last year. Then we've got some younger guys like Will Kennedy, Jesse Ramien and a few others that most people haven't heard about before, but they're all in our future plans," he said.
"Their future starts this weekend with their first taste of playing with and against regular first-graders. You never know, we might find a diamond with one of these players and that could lead to an NRL spot down the track."
The Sharks will be looking to follow in the footsteps of previous winners South Sydney who backed up their 2014 NRL premiership success with victory in the Nines the following year.
It was a similar case for the Cowboys who won the 2015 Telstra Premiership a year after taking out the inaugural Nines tournament, and the Sharks will be hoping to emulate their predecessors, but only if they can advance from the Waiheke Pool that includes the Bulldogs, Panthers and Titans.
Graham said it was probably too early to make a direct correlation between NRL and Nines success, but acknowledged there was some merit in the argument.
"I think it's just a reflection of a bit of continuity from the year before," he said.
"There's a lot of familiarity within the squads – especially those teams that take the bulk of their NRL teams – and those players are also still super confident from what they achieved the year before.
"I really enjoy this weekend and I think it's a great way to kick off the season. You get to go out there and put into practice what you've bene practising in the pre-season.
"It's a really different sort of feel and it's a relaxed atmosphere for everyone there. Auckland knows how to put on a great show and I've enjoyed the occasion every time I've been here."