If you ask Cronulla Sharks coach Shane Flanagan, the Sharks were destined to go back-to-back and claim top honours again in 2017, making them the first side to do so since the Broncos in 1992-93.
But, in his view, a diabolical performance by the officials cost his side that opportunity.
Did they though?
Every team cops some rough calls through the course of the season, which means every side will get the rub of the green. Some calls have a bigger impact than others undoubtedly. But relying even somewhat on imperfect humans to be perfect so as to get the result you want is essentially quite lazy. Players make mistakes but they aren’t hauled before the media post-match and harangued by their coach for such.
If a coach can accept less than perfection from his players, why do they expect nothing less than perfection from the officials?
The Sharks in 2017 have been a dismal shadow of their all-conquering outfit in 2016. They averaged 3.2 tries per game, down from the 4 per game last year. They averaged 3 runs less per game this year, but still managed to average 25 metres more per game.
Cronulla also averaged nearly a whole try assist less in 2017, over 1 offload less per game, and just over 1 line break assist per game. They were also close to 2 tackle breaks per game worse off in 2017.
Despite making 4 tackles per game more in 2017, they also missed 5 and a half tackles more per game, which saw them make 90.23% of all tackles, better than only Wests Tigers (90.12%), Manly (89.55%) and Penrith (89.45%). The Sharks also had nearly 2 handling errors more per game. Despite conceding less penalties this year, Cronulla were still the most penalised team in the competition, not to mention having the worst completion rate.
Only 5 teams were worse than Sharks when it came to switching off before halftime. The Sharks conceded 24 of their 68 tries in the final 20 minutes of the first half, with just Penrith (25), Wests Tigers (26), Souths & Newcastle (28) and Manly (30) worse. This often saw the Sharks enter the sheds behind on the scoreboard. To their credit they found ways to win as indicated by their competition best record in the second half.
That’s a lot of numbers that show the Sharks played a more restricted style in 2017, a style they abandoned somewhat to great effect in 2016. And sure enough, the return to this style has seen the side return to an early exit in the finals.
Flanagan’s 2017 roster has an average age of 27.59 years old, older than other squad. He has 3 men who all brought up their 300 game milestones this year and just 5 players in his side under the age of 24. His side is naturally going to be the one showing less improvement, as his squad is either at their peak or past their peak. Naturally they are still a very competitive outfit and one of the top teams in the competition, but as the game continues to improve, his side will slowly start to get left behind.
He needs an injection of youth and some ad-lib footy needs to creep into their game to break up the predictability of the machine he has assembled. His side have become easier to compete against in 2017.
None of this is the referee’s fault.