In 2013 the Sharks had assembled arguably the best pack in the comp coupled with improved backs and a halves combination that complimented each other well. The fact they made the finals was not at all a surprise. The ASADA investigation and the ramifications that stemmed from it should have been enough to see the club struggle to remain focussed and consistent. Surprisingly, they managed remarkably well to rise above those pressures as the season wore on.
An emotion charged first round victory against the Titans at home followed by a hard fought loss to Souths and a convincing win over the Warriors showed that the Sharks were serious. But as the off field dramas continued, the Sharks went on a 4 match losing run. They then won their next four games, the last of which was their most emphatic victory spearheaded by prop Andrew Fifita. The Sharks defeated Souths and Fifita’s performance was so strong it earnt him his first State of Origin jumper. The Sharks form would be like a see-saw for the remainder of the year, however they had done enough to finish 5th.
After defeating the Cowboys in the first week of the finals in a game marred by errors by match officials, the Sharks, playing without injured playmaker Todd Carney, went down in a gallant battle with rivals Manly, thus ending their season.
The 2014 season looms as another that should see the Sharks finish in the top 6, especially given that all their recruits over the past few years have now had time to form good partnerships, coupled with the emergence of some bright young prospects coming through the ranks.
Where they can win
Up front. This has been strongest part of Cronulla’s sides for the last few years. They have a game plan designed to force teams to slug it out in the middle of the park with them. If the Sharks pack dominates their opponents, it gives Todd Carney and fullback Michael Gordon room to move and create opportunities for their outside, especially speedsters Ricky Leutele and Sosaia Feki.
Five-Eighth Todd Carney is integral to the sides attack and he needs to get his outside backs more involved in games. He showed himself to be a true leader when the club needed him to be and has shown a commitment and passion for the game greater than before. In 2014, the coach needs to devise game plans that will allow Carney off the leash more often. Let him take some risks and make the Sharks a less predictable side and they will become more difficult to beat.
Where they may struggle
Out wide. But it’s not through not having the cattle for the job, but more so due to the game plan the Cronulla side employs. They have the power and straight running new recruit Blake Ayshford, the fast and agile Leutele and the all-rounder Jonathan Wright. And outside them are the speedy Feki and the safe hands of the reliable Beau Ryan. 2013 showed us that the Sharks back are quality but were starved of the ball and forced to play the game plan employed by the forwards. Carney had great combinations back inside with the likes of Fifita and Gallen, but out wide, the combinations aren’t as strong.
Todd Carney. Obvious really. Not only is he the strongest attacking weapon the club has had in a number of years, but he’s also key to getting his backs more opportunities this year. His kicking game suits Cronulla’s game plan and his passing game is superb, especially when attacking close to the line and using his forwards. Carney works best with fast backs around him and with Leutele and Feki both on the same side of the field; expect him to run their side a lot more. He has also has Beau Ryan and Michael Gordon on the other side of the field who are great under the high ball, which provides Carney with an aerial option to the other side of the field.
Rookies to watch
Michael Lichaa is the cream of the crop as far as Sharks young guns go. The Junior Kangaroos hooker for the past two years will be seen as the replacement for the consistent John Morris. Creative and nippy, he will be seen as a future Origin player in the not too distant future. Playing in such a powerful and experienced pack such as the Sharks have will be the best environment for the youngster to make the step into the top grade. Other notable young players are back rower Tupou Sopoaga, utility back Fa’amanu Brown, big forward Junior Roqica, half Penani Manumalealii and back Jacob Gagan. With Origin duties taking a big chunk out of the Sharks forward pack and possibly Carney and Gordon, these rookies are a real chance of getting game time this year.
The big plays
With coach Shane Flanagan suspended for the year, it’s uncertain whether caretaker coach (and assistant to Flanagan) Peter Sharp will continue with the forward dominant style of play, or whether he’ll allow the side to play a more expansive style. As strong as the Sharks pack is, the simple game plan they employ is one which can cause risk in its lack of variation, something which the better teams are able to overcome, as evidenced by the fact that the Sharks lost 9 of the 13 games they played against the top 7 teams in the competition last year.
1. Michael Gordon 2. Sosaia Feki 3. Ricky Leutele 4. Blake Ayshford 5. Beau Ryan 6. Todd Carney 7. Jeff Robson 8. Andrew Fifita 9. John Morris 10. Paul Gallen (c) 11. Luke Lewis 12. Chris Heighington 13. Wade Graham
Interchange: 14. Anthony Tupou 15. Isaac DeGois 16. Sam Tagatese 17. Matt Prior