Cronulla Sharks – 2014 NRL Preview

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In this article, rugby league writer Daniel Boss analyses the chances of the Cronulla Sharks for the 2014 NRL season. Following the suspension of Shane Flanagan for the entire season, the Sharks are relying on Peter Sharp to lead them to that ever-elusive premiership. Will they be able to finally find Harold Holt?

2013 review

2013 was a year to forget off the field for Cronulla, as the ASADA investigation hung a cloud over the team for the entire season. On the field, it was quite a successful year as the Sharks as they overcame a slow start to the year to finish in 5th position on the ladder and make it to the second week of the finals, where they were just beaten by eventual grand finalists Manly. The task of building on this finish was made a lot harder following the suspension of head coach Shane Flanagan. Peter Sharp will take the reins in 2014.

An area that the Sharks improved on in 2013 was their attack, as they scored just under a point more per game in 2013 than in 2012. However, this is still lower than the 2013 season average by just over one point per game. Their strong defence was statistically not as good in 2013 as it was the previous year, as the Sharks conceded more than half a point per game more in 2013 than in 2012. This was still lower than the season average by almost a point and a half per game. Their signings suggest that they are looking to improve their attack as they have mostly signed backs.

Outside backs

The signing of Michael Gordon was seen to be somewhat risky but it paid off for Cronulla as he had a great year and will be the Sharks’ first choice fullback in 2014. If Gordon does go down to injury, then they have a good backup in Nathan Gardner. On the wings, last year’s incumbents Beau Ryan and Sosaia Feki will be challenged by signing Eric Grothe and Nathan Stapleton. Ryan will definitely be on one wing (if fit), while the other spot will be in more doubt. While Feki showed some good signs last season, he will need to improve if he is to retain his position. In the centres, a position has been vacated by the departures of Ben Pomeroy, Stewart Mills and Matthew Wright. Jonathan Wright will more than likely be joined by Blake Ayshford (another ex-Tigers player….) in the centres, however Ricky Leutele will be looking to regain his position in the centres, after a season-ending injury forced him out early last year. Ayshford will be looking to bounce back after two disappointing seasons. All in all, the attacking potency of the Sharks should be better this year than last and the finals showed that they need the ability to score a try or two more per game if they are to contend for the title.

Halves

The combination of five-eight Todd Carney and halfback Jeff Robson are very complementary. Carney is the playmaker, who provides the creativity and spark for the side. As a result, Cronulla cannot afford to lose him for a significant period in 2014. On the other hand, Robson directs the team around, provides a solid kicking game and takes the defence on occasionally. In terms of depth, the Sharks did lose Chad Townsend but they signed Daniel Holdsworth as a backup, who does possess NRL first grade experience.

Front row

At prop, the Sharks have lost some depth following the retirements of Ben Ross and Mark Taufua, as well as the departure of Jon Green. However, they still have their starting prop combination of Andrew Fifita and Bryce Gibbs. Fifita just may be the best front rower in the world at the moment and is a key player for the Sharks, as his footwork and speed sets him apart from all other props at the moment. In terms of depth at prop, Cronulla has Sam Tagataese and signing Tinirau Arona. At hooker, the Sharks have the duo of John Morris and Isaac De Gois. Morris turned back the clock last season as he had his best season in some years but his 2013 season will be tarnished from the dumb penalty he conceded that cost the team a game-tying try in the final moments of their semi-final defeat to Manly. As for De Gois, he has battled injury over the past few seasons and has not been in his best form as a result. If he can return to his best form in 2014, then this will add another dimension in attack to the Sharks.

Back row

Despite the departures of Jayson Bukuya and Tyrone Peachey, the Sharks are loaded with back rowers. The starting back row is very impressive, which includes Luke Lewis, Wade Graham and NSW captain Paul Gallen. Lewis and Graham are both strong running back rowers who can also provide some ball-playing ability as both have experience in the halves. Gallen plays like a third front rower and adds to their go forward. As for depth, the Sharks have the ever reliable Chris Heighington, Anthony Tupou and signing Matt Prior. If the Sharks are to lose players due to injury or suspension in the back row, then they will be able to adequately replace them. In terms of depth, this is the deepest back row in the competition.

Bench

As a result of their strong depth in the back row and Paul Gallen’s ability to play in the front row, I expect the Sharks to retain their bench structure of one prop, two back rowers and a hooker. As Graham and Lewis can cover in the backline, then there is no need for them to have a back on the bench. The big impact off the bench will likely come from Anthony Tupou. His hard running caused problems for tiring opposition defences last season and I would expect the same in 2014.

Coach

As mentioned in a previous article, the appointment of Peter Sharp for the 2014 season in place of the suspended Shane Flanagan is a good one. Sharp provides plenty of experience and has been an assistant at the Sharks for the past two seasons, so he is familiar with the players and tactics that the team employs. The one aspect that the Sharks may suffer from with Flanagan’s suspension is the fact that the players really love playing for Flanagan. Flanagan has been able to build a culture at the club that the players just really enjoy and it will be a task for Sharp to maintain this environment.

Best squad

  1. Michael Gordon
  2. Sosaia Feki
  3. Blake Ayshford
  4. Jonathan Wright
  5. Beau Ryan
  6. Todd Carney
  7. Jeff Robson
  8. Andrew Fifita
  9. John Morris
  10. Bryce Gibbs
  11. Wade Graham
  12. Luke Lewis
  13. Paul Gallen
  14. Isaac De Gois
  15. Chris Heighington
  16. Sam Tagataese
  17. Anthony Tupou

Prediction

9th. If it was assured that no more players would be issued with infraction notices, then I would have the Sharks much higher. In fact, I would have them in 6th, ahead of Penrith, Newcastle and North Queensland. I like this squad, even though I do think that they may still lack the attack to enable them to finish off games. Yet, the forward pack is one of the best in the competition and this will keep them in all games. However, the big issue here is the ASADA cloud which still hangs over the club. It’s this uncertainty which is forcing me to place the Sharks outside of the top 8.

2014 Ladder Prediction

  1. Canterbury Bulldogs
  2. Penrith Panthers
  3. Newcastle Knights
  4. North Queensland Cowboys
  5. Cronulla Sharks
  6. Gold Coast Titans
  7. St George Illawarra Dragons
  8. Brisbane Broncos
  9. New Zealand Warriors
  10. Wests Tigers
  11. Parramatta Eels
  12. Canberra Raiders
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