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This season Cronulla have been ranked distant outsiders. Coming from the disaster of 2003, its little surprise that nobody thinks we?re a chance at the eight. Laurie Daley predicted thirteenth, RLW gave us twelfth. However, with a swag of new signings and a year of experience under our belts, the Sharks have a good a shot at the title as anyone. Much of our chances stem from the forward pack and the new found depth therein.
Last season was a disappointing season for the Cronulla front row. Jason Stevens and Chris Beattie barely showed glimpses of their past representative form. However, this year, with young players of the calibre of Dale Newton, Keith Galloway and Andrew Lomu pressing for selection, both should lift their game to cement a place in the starting line up. Stevens has had a shortened pre-season, but has hopefully brushed out the cobwebs with a sixty five minute run in last Saturday?s trial match.
The back row poses a more serious selection problem for coach Stuart Raper. Danny Nutley is the incumbent, and Australian international Phil Bailey can expect the other position if he doesn?t line up in the centres. However, Paul Gallen has shown exceptional pre-season form, as has Andrew Lomu, and both will keep their highly ranked competition competing for the spots. Both Nutley and Bailey are capable of filling in other positions in the team, so don?t be surprised if both Lomu and Gallen make regular appearances in the back row. Michael Russo has also shown promising form early this year and should take a position on the bench.
Matt Hilder is deserving of the lock position and should hold out all comers for the opening round. Dean Bosnich and Michael Sullivan are locked in a battle for the hooking role and on form Sullivan probably has an edge. However, I expect Raper to start Bosnich and bring Sullivan on for impact, much in the same way Chris Anderson did.
Predicted forward pack for round one:
Front rowers: Jason Stevens, Chris Beattie Hooker: Dean Bosnich Second rowers: Phil Bailey, Danny Nutley Lock: Matt Hilder
Bench: Paul Gallen, Andrew Lomu, Michael Russo, Michael Sullivan