In his ongoing series of season reviews, Daniel Nichols looks back on the Cronulla Sharks season.
Fan Prediction: Top 4
Where It Went Right: On field, this was the Sharks best season since 2008 as they ventured into the second week of the finals. Off field the club managed to sign up 10,000 members for the first time in its history, whilst adding a major sponsor for the 2013 season as well as a ground sponsor in the form of Remondis. The club’s recruitment in 2011 was arguably their best in recent memory, if not ever, as they added NSW stars Luke Lewis and Michael Gordon, as well as former England second rower Chris Heighnington and two players who had their best years in 2012 in Beau Ryan and Jonathan Wright. Michael Gordon especially provided a spark and consistency the club had been missing for many years, since the retirement of David Peachey. Lewis and Heighington took pressure of Gallen and Carney, with Lewis especially taking on a playmaking role at times.
Front rower Andrew Fifita was the stand out front row forward of the competition in 2013. He finished the season as the club’s top try scorer with 9, as well as averaging almost 150 metres per game, as well as 30+ tackles. He made his debut for NSW and the Kangaroos and looks like a representative mainstay. Paul Gallen again led the way for the Sharks with a massive 180+ metres per game, a stat that was hurt by his injury 1 minute into the club’s clash with the Knights. Todd Carney, as mentioned, was in prime form all season for the Sharks and his absence from the club’s semi final may have been the difference between the sides. Carney’s halves partner Jeff Robson was in career best form, earning him a contract extension. John Morris stood up for the club in the number 9 role and also re-signed for 2014. The Sharks main stars fired in 2013 whilst their lesser known players stood up in the face of adversity.
The club was able to not only not let the Asada investigation have an impact on its on field form, but managed to turn it into an almost positive, such was the way the players and fans pulled together. Youngsters Sosaia Feki and Tyrone Peachey stood up and had brilliant years with the Sharks, proven by the anger shown by Sharks fans at the news Peachey was headed for Penrith next season. Jason Bukuya, also leaving the club has an excellent 2013 scoring 7 tries and providing more than adequate backup from the top liners Gallen, Lewis and Graham. Anthony Tupou had his best year at the Cronulla club after recovering from a long term injury that seems to have affected his form. The club also managed to blood Tupou Sopoaga, who looks like he will step into the void left by Bukuya next season.
Where It Went Wrong: The Sharks were on the back foot before the season even started thanks to their being named as the club accused of systematic doping in the now infamous ‘Darkest Day In Sport’ press conference. The Asada cloud has hung over the Shire club each and every day of the season and looks as though it may drag on til late 2013 at the earliest. Coach Shane Flanagan was stood down and some of his support sacked whilst players were forced to miss training to conduct interviews with Asada officials. The scandal was never far from headlines, even when the Sharks were winning. Wade Graham’s perceived lack of respect for the process forced Asada to pursue extra powers to force players to co-operate and give up information.
Injuries at inopportune times, no that there’s ever a good time for an injury, ultimate cost the Sharks. Paul Gallen was injured during Origin 2 and missed a few weeks, including the club’s embarrassing 40-0 loss to the Roosters. Todd Carney’s injury that kept him out of the Shark’s last 2 home and away games this season looks to have cost him a second Dally M medal, and his absence from the side cost the Sharks their main playmaker in their do or die match up with the Eagles. Luke Lewis, Michael Gordon, Anthony Tupou and Beau Ryan also spent time on the sidelines meaning the Sharks were forced to look to other, less experienced options at important times of the season.
A lack of strike power out wide was again the achilles heel for the Shire club. Whilst the club didn’t lose too many battles up the middle, when the going got tough Cronulla did not have someone like Jamie Lyon, or Michael Jennings out wide to create opportunities. Ben Pomeroy had a solid end to the season, and whilst no one could accuse Beau Ryan, Sosaia Feki or Jonathan Wright of a lack of effort, the fact that Andrew Fifita was the club’s top try scorer with 9 tells an unfortunate tale. They have added Blake Ayshford from the Tigers and will have Ricky Leutele back from injury but the club’s lack of genuine strike power out wide will again be concerning to Shark’s fans.
Verdict: Prior to the Crime Commission’s press conference, the Sharks looked like a genuine top 4 threat. After the press conference and subsequent media scrutiny it looked highly possible that the club would implode. The fact that they managed to finish 5th, host a home final, and advance to the second week of the finals series was a true testament to everyone involved. The Sharks have lost two future stars in Bukuya and Peachey although the fact their NSW cup side won the minor premiership and grand final shows the club’s future is bright. At current they are linked to Blake Ferguson, Eric Grothe and many other outside backs, should they manage to sign a classy outside back, combined with their tough and talented forward pack and world class 5/8 in Todd Carney, fans will be confident their drought ending premiership may not be too far away. The outcome of the Asada investigation may have a huge bearing on just how successful their immediate future may be.