Sharks 2017 season review
The Sharks found out that there's a fine, fine line between pleasure and pain.
Twelve months ago, Andrew Fifita somehow fought through Melbourne's brick wall defence to score the try that secured Cronulla's first premiership. It's hard to replicate that desire, and in extra time of their elimination final against North Queensland, the bulldozing prop had a chance to run straight to set up for a field goal. Instead, he went sideways and lost the ball. It was the story of their season.
There's a reason why no side has gone back-to-back since the Broncos in 1992-93 and the Sharks found out the hard way what it's like having 15 teams bring it to them on a weekly basis.
Patches of brilliance were offset by silly penalties and costly errors in 2017, while a string of narrow losses at home saw them miss out on a spot in the all-important top four and left them vulnerable in Week One of the finals where they were pipped in an epic extra-time encounter by the brave Cowboys.
Where they excelled: Second-phase footy is fast becoming the best way to break down structured defensive lines and it's an area the Sharks have always dominated. Shane Flanagan's men finished the regular season with 276 offloads (third most in the NRL) with Paul Gallen and Andrew Fifita both featuring in the top five. The Sharks also had no problems marching downfield with the defending premiers making 38,998 metres (third most in the regular season) with Gallen again leading the way with 4582 metres courtesy of another big return in the elimination final. Their away record (10-2) was only bettered by the Storm and included wins in Melbourne, Canberra and Townsville.
Where they struggled: It was the elephant in the room that never got addressed: discipline. When the Sharks got through their sets and didn't concede penalties, they were just about the best team in the competition. However, those days were few and far between as Shane Flanagan's men made 266 errors and conceded 175 penalties in the regular season. Those concerns didn't dissipate in the finals with Cronulla coming up with 17 mistakes while they gave up 11 penalties to repeatedly let the Cowboys off the hook. Unsurprisingly, five-eighth James Maloney was the worst offender this season having conceded 36 penalties while he also missed 121 tackles. The other area they really struggled was their home form. Southern Cross Group Stadium was a fortress in 2016 with the Sharks winning 11 of their 12 matches at the venue but that didn't flow on with Cronulla managing just five victories there in 2017.
Missing in action: Apart from a hooking crisis that threatened to derail their campaign midway through the season, the Sharks had a fairly clean bill of health. James Segeyaro (arm) was restricted to 12 games, rookie Jayden Brailey (jaw) managed 19 matches while Jack Bird (shoulder and State of Origin) played 17 games. Skipper Paul Gallen benefited from his representative retirement and played all 25 games; equalling his most productive season (2005). In all, 13 players featured in 20 or more matches, with Chad Townsend and Ricky Leutele the other Sharks to play all 25 games.
Turning point: He rejuvenated their attack in 2016 so the loss of Ben Barba in the off-season was always going to hurt the Sharks, especially with their spine already missing Michael Ennis. Given the lack of injuries and suspensions, there weren't any glaring turning points in their season. However, it appears the Round 13 bye came at the worst possible time for the Sharks who managed to record back-to-back wins just once in the second half of the season; a far cry from the team that won 15 in a row in 2016.
Hold your head high: It was never going to be easy trying to replace Michael Ennis, but rookie Jayden Brailey showed why he was regarded as one of the best NYC graduates in recent years with a stellar showing in the No.9 jersey. Brailey finished behind only Gallen in terms of tackles made (694) and scored four tries in a fantastic rookie season that saw him keep experienced teammate James Segeyaro on the bench. It wasn't just the kids having all the fun with veteran Luke Lewis turning back the clock in 2017. The 34-year-old was a pillar of strength on the right edge with his hole running, changes of angles and short kicking game providing a point of difference in attack. The former outside back showed he still has plenty of speed with length-of-the-field intercept tries in back-to-back games that helped him earn a contract extension.
2018 crystal ball: Cronulla's premiership window remains ajar but you get the feeling a strong gust of wind could slam it shut in a heartbeat. Their ageing stars aren't getting any younger and the rigours of a gruelling pre-season could catch up with them as the year drags on. That said, stars of the future Jayden Brailey, Jesse Ramien and Valentine Holmes – yes, he's still very young – will only get better. The Sharks will lose Jack Bird to the Broncos but have offset that by the acquisition of rep star Josh Dugan. The biggest question this off-season will be whether James Maloney stays put or seeks an opportunity elsewhere.
Conclusion: Even the apex predator can struggle when the hunter becomes the hunted. The season began with many people strangely tipping the defending premiers to miss out on the top eight but it didn't take long for the Sharks to prove the doubters wrong. Unfortunately, the drive that guided them in 2016 wasn't quite there this season as the Sharks failed to find the same levels of consistency and brilliance that defined their premiership run.
Home Record: 5-7
Away Record: 10-2
Longest Winning Streak: Four games (Round 4-7, 9-12)
Longest Losing Streak: Two games (Round 22-23)
Players Used: 26
Tries Scored: 78
Tries Conceded: 66