The NSW Blues have been named for the first game of the 2017 #Origin series.
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50 years, five decades, half a century. Whichever way you choose to spin it, the end result is the same: turn off the porch light because the Sharks are premiers.
Just two years after the club was brought to its knees following the suspension of coach Shane Flanagan in the wake of the supplements scandal, a perfect storm of experienced recruits, creative flair and resolute defence culminated in an October night long to be remembered in the Shire.
Having added premiership winner James Maloney and former local junior Chad Townsend to lead an imposing forward pack, complemented by a dynamic backline brimming with speed, the Sharks looked set to make amends for their tumultuous exit in North Queensland last September, which saw them humbled 39-0 by the eventual premiers.
Coming away with just one win from their opening three matches, Cronulla announced their credentials as contenders on Easter Monday, with a hard-fought 14-6 win over their grand final opponents Melbourne. Continuing the run of good form through April, the Sharks faced their biggest challenge of the season against a Brisbane outfit expected to improve upon their runners up placing in 2015. With the sun shining brightly and a healthy crowd on hand at Southern Cross Group Stadium, Cronulla ambushed the Broncos to run away with the game by halftime, only to defend stoutly in the second half to seal the deal and cement their status as the real deal. A week later the most experienced side in the league humiliated the Knights to equal their biggest ever-winning margin with a 62-0 thrashing in Newcastle. Continuing the unbeaten run through May and June, speculation began to mount around the side remaining undefeated, but with five players named in the New South Wales squad for Origin 3, the question of depth came to the fore. Heading West to tackle a resurgent Penrith outfit at the foot of the mountains, an evenly-contested first half ended in a familiar script come fulltime, as new faces Fa'amanu Brown, Jesse Sene-Lefao and debutant Kurt Capewell all stood up to hand the side a 26-10 victory.
Coming into Round 21 with 15 consecutive wins, few could have foreseen the change in fortune set to befall the Cronulla outfit, as a draw against the Titans proved to be the lone point accrued during a run of poor performances against Canberra, St. George Illawarra and South Sydney. In the final home game of the season, an early 12-0 deficit against the lowly Roosters appeared to continue the decline, but a return to the resolve that served the side so well yielded 37 unanswered points to set up a final round showdown in Melbourne to determine the Minor Premiership. While Round 26 failed to bring about the desired result for Cronulla, the rematch with the Storm four weeks later made up for the 26-6 loss in spades.
Having entered the finals in third position, a game-day withdrawal by captain Paul Gallen looked set to derail the Sharks hopes as they battled a Canberra outfit riding a momentum high of 10 straight wins. Staring down a 12-0 deficit just before halftime, a try to prop Matt Prior steadied the course for the Sharks before coach Flanagan made one of the most audacious moves seen in recent history. With the side down 14-12 with 20 minutes to play, halfback Chad Townsend was replaced in the hope of securing the win. Ultimately the move paid off, as a penalty goal in the dying minutes saw the side secure a week off. Well-rested on the back of a 13-day turnaround, Cronulla secured their place in the decider with a comprehensive win over North Queensland. With James Maloney producing a man of the match performance and Paul Gallen back on deck, the Sharks headed into their first grand final since 1997 ready to seize the moment.
Coming up against a Melbourne outfit few considered capable of challenging for a title again, Shane Flanagan's men launched an assault throughout the first half, only to hold a slender 8-0 lead. With momentum beginning to shift in favour of the Storm after the break the Sharks looked to falter at the final hurdle, but an inspired try by prop Andrew Fifita secured a piece of history for the Black, White and Blue, as the joyous sounds of "Up, Up Cronulla" reverberated around ANZ Stadium to give the Sharks their first premiership since entering the competition in 1967.
Having asserted their credentials as a side on the rise in 2015, expectations of a finals finish were realistic throughout the Shire. Heading into September in poor form with just one win from the previous month, the chances of upsetting the Raiders in Canberra were considered even slimmer following the scratching of Paul Gallen. With the game on the line and their chances of ending the premiership drought in the balance, the decision to replace Chad Townsend proved to be the definitive moment of the season. By opting to replace a player who had featured in all 24 regular season matches, the consequences may have been dire for the side, but the inspired piece of coaching by Shane Flanagan gave the side the ideal preparation with an extended breaking leading into the premilinary final.
While the side performed so well throughout the year, much of credit was as a result of the work done behind the scenes by Shane Flanagan and former recruiter Darren Mooney. Having developed a squad packed with experienced campaigners including Michael Ennis, Chris Heighington and Luke Lewis, as well as identifying emerging talent such as Valentine Holmes, Jack Bird and Kurt Capewell, the side boasted a roster that could finally deliver for long-suffering supporters.
In a season where few injuries and consistency across the top 25 resulted in a premiership, it's difficult to be critical of the Sharks. However, one area the side will need to address heading into the shift from hunter to hunted is junior development. Using a total of 24 players all season, including two who were granted mid-year releases to take up offers abroad, the transition to replace the aging roster will need to be a focus if the side is to remain competitive for years to come. With just four players under the age of 23 on-contract for next season, the move to replace the likes of aging veterans Paul Gallen, Chris Heighington, Luke Lewis and the retirement of Michael Ennis may prove to be the sides undoing.
After winning a premiership with the Dragons in 2010, many thought the best days of Matt Prior were long gone. Primarily known as backrower capable of slotting into the backline if required, the 29-year-old produced a career best season in 2016 by playing 25 games in the starting front row. Plying away unnoticed for much of the year, a series of war horse performances during the finals was as much apart of Cronulla's success as the try-scoring prowess of Valentine Holmes and Ben Barba.
Debuting just one player in first grade throughout 2016, former Queensland Cup player Kurt Capewell made the most of his limited opportunities late in the season. Called in as a last-minute addition for the Canberra qualifying final, an early injury to stand-in skipper Wade Graham saw the 23-year-old edge player forced to go the distance having featured off the bench twice previously. Rising to the task to help the side progress, the cousin of former Rabbitohs utility Luke Capewell was rewarded with a place in the side that triumphed over the Cowboys, only to miss out on the Grand Final side following the return of Samoan prop Sam Tagaetese.
Partnering with the immortal Newtown Jets, the Sharks reserve grade side fell a game shy of the decider, going down to eventual State Champions Illawarra. With few opportunities for players to break into the first grade squad, the likes of Mitch Brown and David Fifita opted to shift to Leigh and Wakefield respectively mid-season, while other NRL players Matt McIlwrick and Jesse Sene-Lefao also opted to move on at the end of the season.
Coached by former Sharks hooker John Morris, the Holden Cup side finished the regular season in fourth position, only to bow out in consecutive finals losses to Penrith and eventual premiers Sydney Roosters. Following the retirement of Michael Ennis, young hooker Jayden Brailey will be looking to press his case for a first grade debut in 2017 after being announced as NYC Player of the Year at the Dally M Awards.
In the years following reunification, no side has gone back-to-back since 1992-93. For as jubilant as Cronulla supporters are at the moment, the likelihood of triumphing in twelve months time appears slim following the news of Ben Barba's second strike for drug use. While the club has recruited a number of experienced players including Daniel Mortimer, Jeremy Latimore and former Kangaroo Tony Williams, the major void left by Michael Ennis' retirement cannot be overstated. With former Tiger Manaia Cherington, Fa'amanu Brown and Mortimer all in the running to take over the number nine role, the Sharks face an uphill battle as the other 15 clubs look to cut down the reigning champions.
(based on current signings)
1. Valentine Holmes
2. Sosaia Feki
3. Jack Bird
4. Ricky Leutele
5. Gerard Beale
6. James Maloney
7. Chad Townsend
8. Andrew Fifita
9. Daniel Mortimer
10. Matt Prior
11. Luke Lewis
12. Wade Graham
13. Paul Gallen (C)