The Cronulla Sharks lost two members of their premiership-winning spine with the departures of Michael Ennis and Ben Barba but managed to make the finals. They have lost another in James Maloney but Paul Zalunardo and Margie McDonald explain this should not create a huge disturbance in the Sharks being a premiership force.
Sharks coach Shane Flanagan never wanted to see State of Origin players Jack Bird and James Maloney depart at the same time. But he’s recruited well with Penrith Panthers star Matt Moylan and St George Illawarra international Josh Dugan to add some attacking potency. He needs that as the Sharks finished fifth on the ladder but were 11th in terms of tries scored.
“Our new signings give me a lot of flexibility. Val Holmes can play fullback and he will get first crack at it,” Flanagan said. “So it will probably be Chad and Moylan in the halves, Val at fullback and Dugan in the centres. Chad is a steady organiser and Moylan is an instinctive, offensive, attacking player.
“But things can change around. Jesse Ramien made his first appearance for us in the centres last year against Newcastle and scored a try on debut. He’s a young kid who had a great off-season and he’s really strong.
“I’ve got Aaron Gray (ex-South Sydney) and Sosaia Feki and Sione Katoa from our under 20s going really well. He was the top try scorer (23) there last season. Edrick Lee has had a great pre-season – probably his best. He’s put on some size and weight. So there’s going to be a lot of competition for outside backs. But as I sit here today our halves will be Chad and Moylan.”
A losing home record (5-7) doesn’t often result in a trip to the finals, but the Sharks’ season was anything but typical. Their 10 road wins was beaten only by the Storm.
“It is a strange one. In 2016 we won 11 of 12 at home and while we were pretty consistent away as well, I’d rather reverse it and have 11 or 12 (wins) at home. If we do that keep the away record around eight then we’ve had a great season,” Flanagan said.
“I’m not quite sure why it was lower this year. We did talk about it, but we need to get Shark Park back to being a fortress. It’s something we’ve addressed for next year.”
When your second-highest try scorer of the year finishes with seven four-pointers, the attack has struggled. Cronulla averaged just 16.1 points at home.
“The previous year we had Holmes (19), Barba (16) and Feki (14) all crossing regularly and that’s something we need to get back to. That was one of the reasons for Matty Moylan coming here,” Flanagan said.
“He’s sharp; he creates stuff; he’s got a good catch and pass. We were down 29 tries from 2016 to 2017 so I need to find them. It’s something we’re working really hard on. Defensively we were second-best (to Melbourne) so we just need to fix up our try-scoring ability. We need to nail teams by kicking away with points rather than defending them.”
While their long-kicking game was middle-of-the-road stuff, the attacking kicks of No.7 Chad Townsend forced 21 drop-outs. That was the third highest number from an individual.
“After losing Michael (Ennis), this year I wanted to really take a bit more responsibility on board myself,” Townsend said. “I work hard at it. I take pride in it because all the good halfbacks have great short-kicking games because of how important a repeat-set kick is.
“It’s a big difference between a repeat set or a seven-tackle set. So if you can put the time in and get a really good result from that kick, it does make a difference to the team and a difference to the outcome of the game.”
The results suggest the Sharks did plenty of one-out runs and little in the way of decoy plays. Chad Townsend’s work rate in this area was almost double the output of his next closest teammate.
Despite boasting some big-name forwards, four of Cronulla’s top five players in this category were outside backs, according to NRL.com/stats. NSW back-rower Wade Graham was the pick of the pack.
New Panther James Maloney was well clear of the chasing pack in this field. He topped the NRL by being penalised 35 times – six more than Roosters prop Jared Waerea-Hagreaves.
Broncos-bound centre Jack Bird tops this list for the Sharks despite playing just 16 matches. His average of 1.6 errors per match was the equal worst in the NRL. Only the Roosters made more errors than the Sharks in 2017.
“We were the most penalised team in the competition. That is definitely a stat we must change next year,” Townsend said. “It kills us, it forces us to do a lot of defending we don’t have to do.”
Middle men Paul Gallen and Matt Prior finished the year in the top 10 in the NRL. Gallen enjoyed another superb season, leading the league in total runs and finishing second in average run metres.
“They are very consistent every week about how they go about doing their jobs. You know what you get with Matt and Gal,” Townsend said. “Matt has the ability to change a game with some of his defence. And Gal does the same with an offload, or a busting run.”
Of the Sharks players used more than 15 times as an interchange player, only Jayson Bukuya produced a noteworthy result. Cronulla didn’t match some of their top eight rivals when it came to impact off the bench.
Flanagan has lost three of his bench forwards for 2018 in Sam Tagataese, Chris Heighington and Jeremy Latimore, who are all over 30 years-old. But he disagrees they didn’t have an impact in 2017.
“All those players kept us at a good level right throughout the game. But you do look for impact so we think we’ve got that covered next year with players like Braden Uele, who is a young kid from the Cowboys, Ava Seumanufagai (Wests Tigers) and our own Luke Capewell. They will all get their chance.
“One (interchange) not changing is Jayson Bukuya who was fantastic for us this year and last. We want to improve our bench but if we’re scoring points, our bench just need to hold that up. We don’t want to slide or go backwards when our bench comes on. They need to keep us going forward.”
Considering his tireless attitude when it comes to carting the ball up the field, Paul Gallen’s result in this category provides another example of his tremendous worth to the team. In limited appearances, Sam Tagataese’s result was the third-best in the NRL.