The Cronulla Sharks will enter their 50th NRL season in 2017, and their first time with the Premiers target after their fairy tale 2016 season. Can they now add another title by going back to back?
Last season placing
League: 3rd on the ladder (Grand Final Winners)
The Cronulla Sharks wrestled the monkey off their back in 2016, finally taking home the NRL Premiership trophy and starting a months-long party in the shire.
Along the way, they made some memorable pieces of history, breaking the club record winning streak as they took all the points for 15 straight games. They equaled the club record for biggest winning margin, demolishing the hapless Newcastle Knights 62-nil in Newcastle, which also smashed their largest winning margin away from home.
As fans began to dream of success at last, and with the team beating every side in the competition at least once, reality set in when a poor performance saw them lose to Canberra at home, setting the side on a losing streak as the Finals neared. The Sharks still managed to hang in the race for the minor Premiership, before being comprehensively beaten by Melbourne in Round 26, which saw them slip to third place, behind both the Storm and Raiders.
But the Sharks dazzled in the Finals arena, disposing of the Raiders in Canberra, despite fielding an under-strength side due to injury. Cronulla then demolished the 2015 Premiers the Cowboys in Sydney setting up a Grand Final clash with the Storm.
Cronulla fans will long remember Andrew Fifita giving the Sharks the lead by carrying five Storm players over the line and planting the ball under the sticks, before Ricky Leutele made the final tackle of the match after the siren as the Storm looked destined to steal the victory.
Up, Up, Cronulla was never sung louder and prouder before.
They now face a new challenge, being the team that everyone will be gunning for. They get to open the NRL season with a clash against glamour club the Broncos, and will want to jump out of the blocks early, to silence both the critics and their own doubts. Having been written off as prospects for back to back Premierships, the pressure is minimal on the Sharks despite being the current trophy holders. That may just provide extra motivation for the club to surprise everyone.
Valentine Holmes: Holmes has just signed a fresh Sharks contract to keep him at the club long term, and with Barba shifting away from the club in the off season, the Sharks new fullback’s time is now. Holmes almost broke the club record for tries scored in 2016 and has a knack of finding his way to the line from anywhere on the field. He provides spark for the Cronulla side, and should show even more of this with more opportunities available from the back. Expect to see him pop up more around the ball and use his fancy footwork to bamboozle the opposition and set up plenty of points for the Sharks. He has had Cronulla fans salivating for a while now, and finally getting his opportunity in his preferred position in the number one jersey should see Holmes become an even more impressive prospect.
James Maloney: Maloney has a phenomenal Finals record wherever he goes. Joining the club following his departure from the Sydney Roosters at the end of 2015, Maloney showed his worth by once again guiding the Sharks admirably to the Finals. On top of his brilliant running game and effective passking and kicking in play, his goal kicking helped the Sharks in their winning streak, highlighted when he kicked a post siren sideline conversion to steal the victory from the jaws of defeat against the Bulldogs mid-season. Teams that Maloney plays in succeed, and that was no different in 2016, and the Sharks will need the 5/8 at his dynamic best if they are to compete at a high level again in 2017.
Andrew Fifita: While off field distractions hurt both Fifita and the club at times, on the field, the hulking prop lead from the front. Fifita amassed a whopping 4263 metres for the Premiers in 2016, allowing the backs to work their magic with the team on the front foot. He didn’t shirk his workload in defense either, totaling 747 tackles through the season, while missing just 20. And who can forget his display of brute strength when the Sharks needed it most, as he forced his way over the try line despite the attention of five Storm defenders to score when the Sharks needed it most, catapulting them to the lead in the Grand Final, and ultimately, to their first Premiership. Fifita will need to let his playing do the talking for 2017, and keep the off field drama out of his life. If he keeps his head down at training, and unleashes his emotion in metre gaining runs, watch out opposition defenders.
Story of 2017
The advantage for the Sharks in 2017 is everyone has written them off already, easing the pressure on the team to settle back in to business, as they aim to claim back to back Premierships. It does look like a tough ask, especially after a tumultuous off season that saw them lose star fullback Ben Barba to French Rugby. While Holmes is more than capable of filling the shoes of Barba, the loss of Michael Ennis is perhaps the greatest issue for coach Shane Flanagan. He has a young hooker in Jayden Brailey who looks like he is the making of a fine player, having lead the Sharks well throughout the under 20s competition last year, however will take a while to step up to the rigors of first grade. While the club will aim for another Premiership, settling for a spot in the eight may prove more realistic.
Top try scorer: Valentine Holmes
Top points scorer: James Maloney
Player of the Year: Valentine Holmes