At times, watching the Cronulla Sharks in 2003 was more painful than inserting shards of glass under your eyelids. When they weren't throwing away victory in the dying moments with an ill-timed pass or sloppy tackle, they were being trampled by record margins by such premiership heavyweights as the Tigers and the Eels. Every so often they'd craft a performance decent enough to keep a steady trickle of fans coming through the turnstiles, but at almost no stage did they appear ready to tackle the top teams.
Now, just two weeks from the season kickoff for 2004, a strangely soothing air of optimism hangs over Woolooware. The off-season has been one of upheaval, as the angry Shire-folk revolted and tipped the angry little dictator of the Cronulla Sharks, Chris Anderson, out of his seat of power. In his place sits local boy Stuart Raper, whose soothing words have offered some confidence for a positive year ahead. Alongside him are some of the greats of this club - the likes of Steve Rogers and Andrew Ettingshausen - who remain the cornerstones for the Cronulla spirit. There is good reason for the air of optimism in the Shire, as it appears we are in good hands.
In 2003, the Cronulla backline was as imposing as a wall of soggy cardboard. With the likes of Jarrad Anderson and Laloa Milford taking their place on the outskirts of the park, it is little surprise that we were far from formidable. In 2004, this has been rectified.
Trial form has indicated that David Peachey is set to put the dramas of the past months behind him as he sets out to recapture his past glory. And, should Peach fall to the traditional foe - his delicately strung hamstrings - young David Simmons is waiting in the wings to make the fullback position his own. Simmons was afforded fifteen minutes of first grade last season, but can probably expect to see a whole lot more through the year ahead.
On the wings, Nathan Merritt and Matthew Rieck are tipped to cement the first grade positions, although the signing of Hassan Saleh has increased competition for the 2 and 5 jerseys. Usual centres Ryan McGoldrick and Paul Franze are also capable of playing out wider, while Simmons' can cover the wing too should it be required.
In the centres, a most interesting showdown is looming. While Kiwi international Nigel Vagana has one position stitched up, McGoldrick and Franze have been fiercely battling for the vacant position during the trials. While Vagana is expected to miss the first round with shoulder problems, it will be particularly interesting to see who fits where upon his return. Early form indicates that rugby union convert McGoldrick is the front-runner for the job.
Five eighth appears a position most open to contenders. Greg Bird, Michael Sullivan and young whiz-kid Russel Aitken are all in contention for the playmaking role. If trial selections are anything to go by, Bird should be expected to take the 6 jersey early in the season, although don't be surprised if Aitken makes the standoff position his own by round 26.
Halfback, of course, belongs to captain and dominant playmaker, Brett Kimmorley.
My prediction for the backline for round one:
Tomorrow we'll see how the Cronulla forward pack and bench will stack up early in the year.