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.
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.
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?