Cronulla Sharks: NRL 2018 season preview
Already boasting an impressive roster prior to the signings made for the 2018 season, the additions of Matt Moylan and Josh Dugan further strengthen a Sharks side eager to send out their veterans with one final tilt at premiership glory.
As good as they are, improvement is always needed and the Sharks will need to take more care with the ball in hand if they are to execute their promising attack efficiently.
One thing the Sharks do not lack this season is depth and versatility. With three-four options to consider in the majority of positions, picking their best 17 is no easy feat when all hands are on deck.
With another gruelling campaign ahead, the Sharks have all the tools required to perform consistently and finish as a top four side. But do they have the mental strength to reach their goals and can their new-look side mesh get the desired results?
The big-name artillery. After the rejuvenated attack of 2016 spluttered its way to just under 20 points a game last year, James Maloney and Jack Bird make way for Matt Moylan and Josh Dugan.
Given Maloney's leading hand when it came to Cronulla's offensive structure, the early dynamic between Moylan and Chad Townsend will make for compelling viewing.
Especially with Trent Hodkinson now waiting in the wings and Moylan (not to mention Dugan) equally adept at fullback, a reshuffle could well tempt Shane Flanagan if the Sharks attack doesn't click in the opening six weeks.
Off the park, there's been plenty of changes too, with former Rothmans Medal winner Barry Russell appointed as Sharks football club chief executive following the departure of CEO Lyall Gorman to Manly Warringah Sea Eagles and football manager Phil Moss's move to the Titans.
Former Bulldog Jim Dymock and under-20s coach John Morris replace Steve Price (Warrington) and James Shepherd (Newcastle) as Flanagan's assistants.
The 2017 fixtures could have been kinder on the face of things for Cronulla, with two games against heavyweights Melbourne, North Queensland and Brisbane and 2017 finalists Penrith and Parramatta as well.
Particularly when the Sharks have only drawn stragglers Wests Tigers, Warriors, Titans and Rabbitohs once.
But they are also facing just one five-day turnaround in 2018 with nine Sunday day games – the equal most in the competition - allowing for genuine continuity and a chance to kick start their offence in favourable conditions.
The stat that gives you hope
Despite an offensive return lower than they would've liked, Cronulla still made the defensive lines work with 528 post-contact metres a game in 2017, behind only the Cowboys (546m) and the Dragons (539m).
No surprise that Paul Gallen led the charge with 68.1 metres after engaging the defence (third in the NRL) while Andrew Fifita (48.6m), Ricky Leutele (46.5m) and Val Holmes (45.8) all contributed well to the Sharks tally.
For context, only two of last year's finalists – Melbourne and Parramatta – did not feature in the top eight for post-contact metres made in 2017.
Paul Gallen ($860,000) and Andrew Fifita ($798,000) are both Fantasy behemoths, capable of busting out 55-60 points each week through a combination of run metres, tackle breaks, offloads and tackles. Chad Townsend ($524,000) could score strongly through an increase in kick metres after James Maloney's exit.
With Cronulla's inaugural premiership still acquainting itself with the club's trophy cabinet, Flanagan's future is assured as the man who delivered it.
High on the coach's agenda are the two key areas his high flying side fell down in last season: penalties (7.3 per game) and handling errors (11 per game), in which they ranked second-last in both categories.
"We've got to stop conceding those penalties and giving away cheap possession," Flanagan told NRL.com recently.
"We've addressed it, we had certain individuals that gave away a lot of penalties and that's either changed or been addressed.
"Even in 2016 we pushed the boundaries, it's a fine line but there's penalties that we just don't need to give."
Neither Luke Lewis or Paul Gallen are showing any signs of slowing down and with the pair off-contract once more, the 'will they, won't they' question around retirement will carry on for another 12 months.
The club will need to keep a reasonable chunk of change aside if they're to hang onto Valentine Holmes, who becomes a free agent from November 1 and is bound to attract rival interest long before that date.
Experienced wider squad members Jayson Bukuya, James Segeyaro and Joseph Paulo are also off-contract and more than worthy of spots in any NRL 17.
The burning question
Can too many cooks spoil Cronulla? Arguably no side boasts as many big personalities as the Sharks, with Gallen, Fifita, Lewis and Wade Graham all dominant voices in the forward pack.
Out wide meanwhile, Dugan, Moylan and Holmes all prefer to play fullback, and can do so at the highest level.
Keeping Holmes at No.1 with Dugan at right centre and Moylan in the halves is Flanagan's early plan, and the soundest at that.
If it doesn't work early though, the calls for change will emerge, and managing any switch-ups may prove delicate given the salaries and egos involved.
Chad Townsend. Given the ducks and drakes of the past decade and Brad Fittler taking charge of NSW, no Blue-blooded No.7 can count themselves out of Origin contention.
Particularly one with an NRL title and the kicking game of Townsend, who forced 21 dropouts last year (third in the competition) and has obvious playing history alongside incumbent five-eighth Maloney.
Realistically, the 27-year-old still sits behind Mitchell Pearce, Adam Reynolds and Panthers young gun Nathan Cleary in the NSW pecking order, but given a strong start to 2018 and his premiership pedigree, stranger things have happened.
The player you should follow on social media
Paul Gallen. The big bloke's Instagram is usually good for a prank or behind the scenes goings on at Cronulla, and as always, he's not shy about having an opinion. Gal doesn't mind a promotion or two either, but his kids are cute and he has a handy knack of running into celebrities.
Shane Flanagan on Cronulla's embarrassment of fullback and playmaking riches in 2018:
"I've never had this much flexibility across the playmakers before. In 2015 we had a little bit of a similar situation with Benny Barba, Michael Gordon and Val Holmes emerging that year.
"I probably didn't manage that situation as well as I would've liked. But I evolved with that and got better at managing those guys and the team got used to them playing different roles.
"The flexibility we've got with our fullback and halves this year, hopefully it will see us scoring more points with a different style of footy."
NRL.com expert Jamie Soward says: "The player to watch for me is one of the most exciting players in Valentine Holmes. Will he play wing or fullback? How will he fit in the structures with Matt Moylan being at six ? One of the most exciting players not only for me, but for everyone in the NRL, Valentine Holmes.
"Sharks for me finish 4th."
Backs: Aaron Gray, Bessie Aufaga-Toomaga, Chad Townsend, Edrick Lee, Issac Lumelume, Jesse Ramien, Josh Dugan, Josh Tuilagi, Kyle Flanagan, Matt Moylan, Ricky Leutele, Sione Katoa, Sosaia Feki, Trent Hodkinson, Valentine Holmes, William Kennedy.
Forwards: Andrew Fifita, Ava Seumanufagai, Billy Magoulias, Blayke Brailey, Braden Uele, Briton Nikora, Brock Illett, Daniel Vasquez, Eddie Faalua, Jack Williams, James Segeyaro, Jayden Brailey, Jayson Bukuya, Joseph Paulo, Josh Carr, Kurt Capewell, Kurt Dillon, Luke Lewis, Matt Prior, Paul Gallen, Scott Sorenson, Wade Graham.
Note: These club squads are subject to change. Each club is required to submit 29 of their official 30-man playing squad to the NRL by March 1. The final spot in these rosters can remain free up until June 30.