Sharks halfback Chad Townsend says his combination with five-eighth James Maloney – which is headed into just its second season – is still growing and will continue to improve as 2017 progresses.
The decision to bring Maloney across from the Roosters proved a masterstroke in its first season as he helped deliver the Shire its first ever premiership.
But one of the less-publicised subplots from that historic win is Townsend, who was the only local junior in that drought-breaking Sharks win.
The Yarrawarra Tigers junior was perennially one of the best players in the NSW Cup from his 2011 NRL debut with Cronulla to the time of his reluctant, opportunity-starved departure at the end of 2013, with just 19 caps over three seasons.
Two years of regular first grade at the Warriors followed; the first brought him moderate success (the hot-and-cold Warriors missed the finals by a fraction but won 11 of 19 games with Townsend and just one of five games he missed) while the second was poor for both club and player.
Townsend, who can now proudly list "premiership-winning halfback" on his resume, was brought home in 2016 to partner star recruit Maloney – and the combination brought immediate and stunning success.
In concert with a smart decision from Flanagan to stick with Ben Barba at fullback and great service from veteran hooker Michael Ennis in his second year at Cronulla (in what proved to be his NRL swansong), Townsend enjoyed easily his best ever year.
Sitting down with NRL.com ahead of this weekend's local derby against the Dragons – and following on from a morale-boosting thrashing of the more-fancied Raiders – Townsend praised the faith of Flanagan and guidance of Maloney in helping him achieve such lofty heights last year and warned the pair are continuing to improve what is still a relatively young combination.
"Jimmy and myself, our combination in my opinion is the best we've ever felt," Townsend said.
"Coming together last year at the start of the season we were new and there was a lot of speculation about how we would go together but we put the time in and the work to be able to get on the same page and we did an extra video session together each week.
"We did that once per week for the whole season. The combination stuff doesn't happen overnight. It takes time and it takes a lot of work and then having that 12 months in the back pocket now for us, I feel very comfortable playing with him, I enjoy playing with him.
"He's probably the best five-eighth I've ever had so I'm really comfortable with where we're at and we still want to go to another level and I think we can go to another level as well, to be honest."
After a few years of dominating at reserve grade level, the chance to play regular NRL at the Warriors gave Townsend a huge confidence boost but it was the faith of Flanagan, who brought him back to Cronulla with the assurance he would be the first-choice No.7, which really elevated his self-belief.
"When you start to play regular first grade and your team starts to go well and you just do your job, success comes on the back of that," Townsend said.
"Coming back from the Warriors, my vision was just on the seven jersey. I would have done anything for it.
"'Flanno' said to me 'you'll be the seven' and for him to put that confidence in me was a really good feeling and from that moment I was never going to look back and I'm very comfortable with where I'm at now.
"I still want to be able to improve and work together with our coaches and our players and our team to make sure we can keep getting better and playing good footy."