Saturday, 10 September 2016

NRL Title Contenders: Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks (2016)

With just four games remaining before the finals begin, the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks are top-four certainties courtesy of an impressive 15-game winning streak that began in Round 4 and ended in Round 21, when they had an 18-all draw with the Titans.

As it stands, the Sharks worst-case scenario is a fourth-place finish, but with games against the out-of-form Dragons and Rabbitohs in successive weeks, followed by a home game against the lowly Roosters, it seems unlikely they will lose all of those matches. They face off against the Storm at AAMI Park in the last week before the finals in a likely shootout to decide the minor premiership.

Why They Can Win
The mix is right. In everything. Up front they have experience in each and every way you could want it. Their run-on forwards and bench forwards of Fifita, Ennis, Prior, Tagatese, Gallen, Lewis, Graham, Heighington, Paulo and Bukuya have a total of 78 Tests, 57 Origins, 18 games for City and Country and a whopping 1987 club games between them, yet their average age is just under 30. 

Those are the figures of an experienced pack, most of whom are at their peak or approaching it. Wade Graham is the youngest at 25, yet has already been the club captain many times and made his Origin debut this year. Paul Gallen and Luke Lewis are seemingly ageless and provide so much variety in attack while being a fortress in defence. Youth and experience is shared in the halves with Maloney and Townsend, who have created brilliant combinations with the youthful and exciting backline who aren’t afraid to risk their hand.

Why They Can’t
The burden of breaking the hoodoo. This is a club that just has a knack of falling short when it matters. After winning 15 straight games, the expectation that a loss was coming was too much pressure to bear and they ended their run with a hard-fought draw followed by their first loss at home for the year the week after against a red-hot Raiders side. How they bounce back is important, because it will be an insight into how they will perform in the finals. Cronulla has had seven opportunities to reach a grand final since 1988 and they fell one match short on six of those occasions (1988, 1996, 1999, 2001, 2002 and 2008), with the 1997 Super League decider the only exception – and even then, they lost that game convincingly. This is their biggest hurdle by far, and one they need to clear.

Key Player
Michael Ennis. For a side packed with international forwards and exciting young backs, Ennis would seem to be the least likely considered to be a key player. But someone has to steer that pack of big names around the park and it’s a challenge that the veteran hooker has relished. With this year being his swansong, his teammates will be hoping to send him off a winner.

Squad Health
For the first time ever (so far anyway), the Sharks have used less than 24 players in a season – six of whom have only played three games or less, while the remaining 18 have over 15 games each. They currently have no players injured or suspended and coach Flanagan had been resting some players from mid-week training to ensure they are minimising risk of injuries and burnout. Simply put, the club has never been in better shape at the right time of the year.

Finals Record
The Sharks played their first finals match in 1973 and since then they have played 40 finals games, with 15 wins, a draw and 24 losses. The telling stat, though, is that they have only managed back-to-back finals victories in a season just three time, 1996 and 2001 (losing in the preliminary final both years) and 1978, where they lost the grand final in a replay. They have never won three straight finals games. Since 2012, they have had three finals campaigns, 2012, 2013 and 2015. In 2012 they bowed out in week 1 after losing to the Raiders. In 2013 they had a stunning victory over the Cowboys followed by a narrow loss to Manly, while in 2015 they dominated defending champs Souths before getting hammered by eventual premiers North Queensland.

Run Home
Cronulla plays just once more at home in their last four games, however they only leave Sydney once, in Round 26 to travel to Melbourne. They play the Dragons (A) and Rabbitohs (A), then the Roosters (H) and Storm (A). They should almost certainly beat the Dragons and would be favourites to beat Souths and the Roosters. This would set up a minor premiership battle between the Sharks and Storm in the final game of the year. The Sharks need just one victory to lock down a top-three spot, and two wins to guarantee a top-two spot and a home game in the first week of the playoffs – although the NRL will force them to play it at Allianz Stadium.

**This article appeared on the Commentary Box Sports website**

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