Time to look ahead to Sunday's decider! Rob Crosby has a full look at both teams and what to expect ...
24 hours ago
Cronulla set about achieving just one thing in 2011, rebuilding. They improved the team on-field and off-field as well as focussing on the future.
Over the previous two seasons, Sharks finished last in attack and narrowly avoided the dreaded wooden spoon on both occasions. Most pundits didn't expect much to change in 2011.
And while the Sharks finished with just 7 wins in 2011 (same as 2010) it's hard to argue that 2011 was as bad a year for the Sharks.
Massive rebuilding, a new coach and a positive injection of youth finally gave Sharks fans a reason to look forward to 2012 and beyond.
After a horrid start against Canberra, Cronulla quickly turned things around with possibly the biggest upset of the decade, when they toppled world champions St.George-Illawarra. They followed it up with a demolition of Penrith, seeing them sitting in the top 8 for the first time since Round 1, 2009.
Cronulla fought gallantly but with no success in their next 3 games, pushing Warriors, Manly and Newcastle for the full 80 minutes. Two dismal displays followed before Cronulla outclassed 2010 Grand Finalists Roosters by 18-4.
The injuries started to mount, and captain Paul Gallen's absence due to Origin, saw the Sharks belted by Parramatta to the tune of 40-6. Cronulla lost a tight contest to Melbourne before being accounted for by the Broncos at home. A stunning change of form inspired by Gallen, on the back of his second Origin heroics, saw the Sharks pick up 4 straight victories against Canterbury, Gold Coast, Souths and Canberra.
The run was halted by a Dragons team hell bent on avenging their loss to the Sharks earlier in the year.
Gallen was injured in the match, but continued playing through the pain for the rest of the year. With a number of players getting injured and others playing with injuries, the Sharks failed to win any of their last 8 games.
2011 Comings and Goings
Gains: Colin Best (Rabbitohs), Wade Graham (Panthers), Jeremy Smith (Dragons), Sam Tagatese (Titans), John Williams (Cowboys).
Losses: Adam Cuthbertson (Dragons), Blake Ferguson (Raiders), Grant Millington (Bulldogs)
The injuries - odd yes, but it was the injuries to players like Dean Collis, Albert Kelly, John Williams and Nathan Gardner that saw young players like Chad Townsend, Stewart Mills, Tyson Frizell and Ricky Leutele all get some game time. They all showed a lot of promise and will help provide the Sharks with some all-important depth, not to mention classy speedy backs. The Sharks also showed glimpses, through some of their younger players, that they have the ability to score points, something which has been sorely lacking in the Shire for a number of years.
The injuries - every club has them, but the Sharks had them at the wrong time to the wrong players. For the first 8 weeks, while the Sharks had 3 wins and 5 losses, they weren't in very bad form, and young halves Albert Kelly and Wade Graham looked like they were starting to build a good combination, until Kelly was injured. He didn't return until Round 25.
Although the Sharks lost their last two games, they scored points a lot more freely and pushed two prominent attacking sides in North Queensland and Wests Tigers all the way, losing both games by just 8 points. Paul Gallen played on with a number of injuries which hampered his performance, as did Jeremy Smith, Wade Graham and Nathan Gardner, all key players in important roles.
The Second State of Origin - Paul Gallen played one of the greatest games ever seen in Origin history. He carried the form across to club level, which lead to the Sharks winning four straight games. A week after Origin 3 and another Herculean performance by Gallen, the Sharks streak ended against the Dragons, Gallen was injured and their season hopes faded as they failed to win again in 2011.
It's hard to go past the efforts of Paul Gallen, whose work load is impossible to ignore or miss, week in-week out. But there were other very consistent reliable performers who more than pulled their weight all year.
Wade Graham at just 20 years of age and having already played first grade for 3 years at Penrith, showed maturity far beyond his years and started to form a great attacking combination with Albert Kelly and Nathan Gardner. If those three remain in first grade and injury free in 2012, the Sharks will become quite an exciting team to watch. Also, John Morris, Luke Douglas and Jeremy Smith worked as hard as they could and then some all year up front, while Colin Best was the pick of the backline.
The Sharks unveiled a few rookies in 2011, most notably Centre/Winger Stewart Mills and halfback Chad Townsend. Coach Flanagan is going to have a hard time trying to organise his halves for 2012, as Wade Graham began starting a good combination with both Kelly and Townsend.
Mills impressed in his 5 showings and got enough NRL experience to whet his appetite to push for a more permanent role in 2012.
The Sharks lost their bookends Snowden and Douglas, but certainly didn't shirk when it came to finding adequate replacements, in Wests Tigers duo Bryce Gibbs and Andrew Fifita, as well as luring Ben Ross back to the Shire. Gibbs is the most important signing as he is arguably the best defensive prop in the world today. Fifita is a strong attacking runner and Ben Ross is reliable in both attack and defence, providing some great depth and in all areas of the game up front. Isaac De Gois is also returning to the Shire, as Flanagan appears set to continue with his two hookers rotation and forwards dominated play.
Flanagan has cleared out where he can and has sured up the dynamics of his side for the next few years at least, by signing young players and re-signing his rookies as priorities. The Sharks will be a greatly improved since in 2012 and will be pushing hard for their first finals berth since 2008.
2012 Comings and Goings
Gains: Bryce Gibbs (Tigers), Andrew Fifita (Tigers), Ben Ross (Rabbitohs), Isaac De Gois (Knights), Mark Taufua (Knights), Jeff Robson (Eels), Jon Green (Dragons), Todd Carney (Roosters).
Losses: Luke Douglas (Titans), Kade Snowden (Knights), Taulima Tautai (Eels), Ryan Tongia (Wakefield), Dean Collis (Wakefield)
Re-Signed: Albert Kelly, Stewart Mills, Chad Townsend, Matt Wright, Jason Bukuya, John Morris.
Best Line-up for 2012
1 - Nathan Gardner
2 - John Williams
3 - Stewart Mills
4 - Colin Best
5 - Nathan Stapleton
6 - Todd Carney
7 - Wade Graham
8 - Ben Ross
9 - John Morris
10 - Bryce Gibbs
11 - Jeremy Smith
12 - Anthony Tupou
13 - Paul Gallen
14 - Andrew Fifita
15 - Sam Tagatese
16 - Jason Bukuya
17 - Isaac De Gois