Ennis, Barba departures leave gaping hole in Sharks title defence

The Cronulla Sharks will need to overcome the weight of history if they are to become the first side since the Brisbane Broncos of 1992-93 to win back-to-back premierships.

The defending champions open their account on Thursday night in the first game of the 2017 NRL season against the last club to complete the two-peat, but will be without two influential members of their premiership winning spine.

A drama filled off-season has seen Ben Barba travel to France to join up with Rugby club Toulon, while Hooker Michael Ennis called time on his career following a successful two year stint with Cronulla. Both are huge losses for the Sharks attack, which was heralded as the driving force behind last year’s success.

Winger Valentine Holmes, who was a try-scoring star on the wing for Cronulla in 2016, will now be required to fill the void left by Barba at fullback, but is unlikely to start in this Thursday’s clash with the Broncos due to injury. This means that either Jack Bird or Gerard Beale, who played mainly as an impact player off the bench last year, may be forced to start in the number one role until his return, forcing major reshuffling to the outside backs, which has the potential to unsettle the side.

The Sharks look a completely different outfit to last year and the loss of experienced players in important positions are what casts a shadow over their ability to repeat the dose. Their pack still boasts rep stars and hardened warriors like Gallen, Fifita, Graham and Lewis who were vital in giving attacking field position to the play makers and outside backs, while the halves combination of Maloney and Townsend were key to setting up try scoring opportunities. But Ennis’s presence around the ruck, his goal-line defence and his ability to play eighty minutes will be sorely missed by Cronulla this year. As will Barba, and the crucial meters he provided on the kick return, which was perhaps his biggest asset outside of his penchant for steering his wingers into gaps in the defensive line.

You cannot understate he’s worth in a Rugby League outfit. Particularly when it came to sparking something out of nothing. A quality we saw on display when he crossed the line from the back of the scrum to open the scoring in last year’s grand final. He also did it on countless occasions for the Bulldogs during his Dally M winning year in 2012. The NRL will dearly miss his exhilarating turn of pace and the competition will no doubt be poorer for his departure.

The men form the Shire face an uphill battle throughout 2017, particularly during the first five rounds of the year where they will be adjusting to new structures and life without key players. A slow start is to be expected as the likes of Jayden Brailey, the exciting youngster who will start at hooker in round one, Valantine Holmes and Raiders recruit Edrick Lee adjust to their new roles.

Michael Ennis will be a big loss for the Sharks in 2017. Photo: ABC.

Much of the Sharks’ game in both attack and defence revolved around Ennis to a degree last year and without him it’s difficult to see too many scoring chances being created around the ruck. But we mustn’t undervalue Cronulla’s bench, which remains almost identical to the one that lined up against Melbourne in last year’s decider. Their injection into the contest changed the game and breathed life into Cronulla’s attack on many occasions last year.

Beale provided a lethal injection of pace on the fringes, while the side’s elder statesmen – Heighington, Tagatese and Bakuya – possessed similar power and size to the players they replaced and were able to exploit tired defenders at crucial junctions in the game.

Bench depth often determines how deep a side is able to go in a premiership season, and if the Sharks’ substitutes are as potent as they were last year, the reigning champions may find themselves finishing in the top eight once again. But their ageing warriors are operating on tired legs while the men they are replacing are entering the twilight of their careers. Whether they are able to cope with the physicality of opposition packs for the full eighty minutes will determine if they are capable of mixing it with the best the competition has to offer.

Cronulla also have a swathe of fringe first grade players at their disposal, highlighting the depth they have waiting in the wings. Fa’amanu Brown and Kurt Capewell have shown promising signs in their limited opportunities so far and, given they have been named in the 22 man squad to take on the Broncos this week, will be first choice options to slot straight into the side should injury or retirement strike at an inopportune time. The future is bright on this front.

Maloney is another player that flies under the radar in some circles and stands out in others. He is one of the cursed few who seems to perform better when playing alongside familiar faces than in a representative arena, and has shown this through his three grand final appearances with three different clubs. A remarkable achievement few footballers can lay claim to.

Maloney will be a key player in this year’s quest for another premiership. Photo: EON Sports Radio.

Expect another big year from the NSW and Cronulla Five-Eighth, who will be required to marshal the troops in the absence of Ennis. He will also have the added responsibility of taking the line on more often this year, as will Townsend, given they cannot rely on their hooker to run the football in the same way Ennis did. How Maloney performs this season, like any play maker at any club, will determine Cronulla’s fate.

The pressure he and the entire Shraks side are under to continue last years unprecedented rise may prove too much for this club to handle given their lack of success. But it is a team filled with champion players who have experienced football at the highest level, making it very difficult to write them off at this early stage.

The porch light was turned off last year, so what does this current crew of Cronulla players have left to achieve?

Homework-gate confidential – #03 – Australia take out first test in trying conditions

Australia pulled off a remarkable feat when they romped to victory over India on a wicket that would have had a few Australian players biting their finger nails before a ball had been bowled, but to play with the expectation that India will roll-over once again would be a huge mistake for the tourists to make.

The wonderful thing about Australia’s win and Steve O’keefe’s 12 wicket haul was that no one expected it to happen and Australia played as if they had nothing to lose. And in reality, they didn’t.

The talk going into the series was about how many runs Kohli would plunder, the records Ashwin would set and the margins by which India would win. But the events of the first test have drastically changed the tune of conversation, and it now revolves around whether they can bounce back from the damaging batting collapses and how they are going to dismiss Steve Smith, who is in a class of his own currently.

In less than a week’s time, India, for the first time in 19 matches, will be playing on home soil with a loss to their name. It’s a remarkable statistic but one that was going to be derailed eventually.

Kohli had never experienced scoring an international duck in his own backyard before he threw his bat in an uncharacteristic manner at a wide delivery from Mitchell Starc. On Saturday, he will walk to the crease with two low scores from his last two innings and an overwhelming expectation that he ensures the result of the first test was nothing more than a minor bump in the road.

India have not felt this kind of pressure for some time and the weak links in the side are beginning to be exposed by an Australian unit touted as the worst ever to tour the sub-continent. Indian coach Anil Kumble came into the test with all the arrogance of a popular high school student and an expectation that his world beaters would humiliate the tourists by repeating the dose which saw Australia slump to a 4-0 series defeat in 2013. And it is this complacency that gave Australia all the encouragement they needed for their quietly confident and underappreciated players to write their own fairy-tale and finally silence the critics.

But be warned, India are still the formidable force that did a demolition job on England two months ago and South Africa twelve months earlier.

Ashwin was as reliable as an old Volkswagen in the first test and, although he looked far from his best, there were signs that if he gets the right wicket he will be to hot for the Australians to handle.

If just one of India’s batsmen get going and the others bat around him like they did with Kohli, Pujara and Vijay against England, Australia’s sub 300 totals may not be enough. Of course, the Australian batting unit played well to withstand the treacherous conditions of the Pune surface and that very idea will hold them in good stead when they travel to Bengaluru, which will turn, but not nearly as much as the doctored wicket that backfired badly for the Indians.

Australia have the momentum and a first start victory is what was required if they are to believe that a series win in India is a possibility. The hosts know what to expect from the Bengaluru wicket though, and it will require far more grit and determination from the likes of Steve O’Keefe and Steve Smith if they are to go back-to-back and walk way from the second test with the Border-Gavasker trophy already sewn up.

Mutual agreement of terms a must to save World Club Challenge from impending death

If there was ever a sign that the NRL no longer have any interest in sending its teams to the UK for the World Club Challenge, this is it. The revamped tournament which began two years ago, featuring three teams from each league in a ‘series’ style format, has been cut to just two this weekend and if recent trends are any indication, in just two years the traditional fixture may cease to exist.

The World Club Challenge has been through numerous iterations since its inception as an exhibition match between Eastern Suburbs and St. Helens back in 1976, damaging the tournament’s reputation as a traditional rivalry worthy of both the fans attention and the respective boards’ resources. The regular reshuffling of the tournament’s structure, as well as the questionable qualifying methods and sporadic scheduling have been just as, if not more damaging, to the competitions relevance and integrity than anything else.

The differences between what the RFL and NRL governing bodies wish to get out of the World Club Challenge are world’s apart and this is at the core of their very one sided tussle for keeping the ageing concept alive.

The Broncos take on Wigan in the 2015 World Club Series – Photo: Wigan Warriors

The Super League bosses are visionary’s who wish to turn the competition into something it isn’t and never will be; their over-inflated sense of the tournament’s self worth is damaging when they come to asses its popularity, but are driven by optimism when they consider what the ‘Big Brother’ can do for Rugby League in the UK. So much so that plans are already being put in place to shift a regular season Super League fixture to Australia to broaden its reach, while negotiations around the NRL moving a game off-shore and into its rival market are also reportedly underway. What benefits this has for the NRL outside of boosted TV ratings on UK cable television, it is difficult to tell.

The NRL, on the other hand, are the churlish, cashed up stepsisters who get what they want, when they want, and aren’t bothered by a total boycotting of the World Club Challenge because they lose nothing in doing so and have already cracked open parts of the Australian market, and as such, can foresee no great financial or profile raising benefits. It’s simply a clogging up of an already cluttered pre-season schedule that is running the risk of injuring one of its major draw-cards. The Nines are a far easier way for the NRL to grow its image and expand its geographical reach, that is, if these are indeed their goals for participation in the World Club Challenge/ Series. It doesn’t require conversations with its English counterparts and can therefore run its own show, hassle free. The single weekend is another rather attractive quality for a board that has bigger fish to fry than organising a pre-season kick-about – even if its worth more than the sum of its parts now that it is established and ready for expansion.

At the moment, they are a couple of sparring partners fighting for two very different causes. The Super League – to grow their brand by reaching out to Rugby League heartlands in the shadow of the EPL, which will, in turn, lead to boosted revenue and an increased playing standard as international talent is lured to the country. The NRL – to give their clubs exposure to an international market. But they are the power brokers in the great chain of Rugby League being and can do as they please. As such, they may prefer to stage a game featuring two Australian sides in the UK from which similar outcomes to those gained though the World Club Challenge will be derived, less the time consuming negotiations and revenue sharing with the RFL.

These are far from the only reasons the World Club Challenge is beginning to dig its own grave, however. When one competition has refused for years to send out its best players and make a decent hash of the innovation, and in doing so, fails to reward the paying public for their interest by treating it like a glorified trial, they single-handedly erode both the fans and sponsors faith in the concept, while also removing the semblance of integrity that has managed to hang around after a long history of mismanagement and miscommunication between governing bodies that stems right back to the rather spontaneous clash in 1976, which occurred just before the concept went into hiding for eleven years. In this regard, the NRL and its representative clubs have stepped up their game in recent times, suggesting that perhaps they might wish to give this competition the attention and recognition it deserves after 41 long and ill-fated years.

Many would be surprised to know that the Super League are the leading title holders of the World Club challenge by 12 to 11; if you can excuse the 22-team tournament played in 1997. But when you scan through the results to relive some of the great Leeds Rhinos and Wigan Warriors victories, you are immediately reminded that the Australian teams were far from full strength outfits. Not necessarily through the mid 2000’s – the Brisbane Broncos took the field with a similar side to their premiership winning team of the previous year in their clash with St. Helens in 2007, as did Manly following their premiership triumph  – but most certainly since the formation of the new ‘Series’ format in 2015, even if the results have reflected poorly on the Super League. And yet, there are still claims that the gulf in standards between the NRL and Super League are responsible for the competitions flagging interest. How is that when, historically speaking, the Super League holds a slight advantage in the World Club Challenge stakes.

The tussle for power continues – Photo: Getty Images

When NRL clubs have found themselves on the wrong end of a result, they generally blame jet-lag, the climate or the out-of-season fixtures. When they win, the opposition is not up to standard. It’s a merry-go-round of conflicting rhetoric more violent than the frequent changes that have accompanied the competition’s many different incarnations. There’s a stigma associated with the World Club Challenge/ Series and, as hard as it tries to shake it off through innovation and reinvention, it continues to hang around like a bad smell. But without a mutual understanding from all parties involved as to the importance of this competition in growing Rugby League at grassroots level and in general across the UK, the World Club Challenge will never become more than the eh ‘pre/ early -season filler’ it currently is. And that mutual understanding will never be achieved when one organisation reaps little to no benefits whatsoever from the concept in its current form. Compromises, made by the Super League, are therefore a necessity going forward if it hopes to ensure the competitions longevity. It must appease the golden goose in the interim in order for it to take a golden egg. And this will entail World Club Challenge games becoming more accessible and time friendly for the NRL’s biggest asset – fans across Australia.

Three years ago the Sydney Roosters played host to the Wigan Warriors in front of 37,000 fans at the Sydney Football Stadium. It was the first time the competition appeared to gain traction and the first time the fans bought into the contrived rivalry that has now become a tradition. If the two organisations wish to see this competition flourish into the successful, revenue and profile raising product it has always promised to become, but never amounted to, it must travel from country to country, stick to a specified structure and feature only the past years grand finalists in a one off game. Adding extra sides does nothing but detract from the Super League season already in play and undermine the importance of the fixtures that lie either side of it.

It’s a sound enough concept with solid foundations that has worked in other sports and, if treated correctly, can become a prestigious event that the grand finalists use as extra incentive in their quest for a premiership.