Just over a week ago fans of the Cronulla Sharks were left with heads in hands after the announcement that their star number one, Valentine Holmes, would be leaving the club to pursue a career in the NFL.
Fast forward to today and it looks as though the Sharks’ long wait to find a replacement is over, with the club set to announce the signing of Kiwi maestro Shaun Johnson.
The question is, are the Sharks in a similar or even stronger position after the week-or-so of signing madness?
Obviously this is not a straight swap as I highly doubt Shaun Johnson is looking for a positional change this late in his career. Although, given the goings on of this off-season, nothing would shock me anymore.
Johnson is odds on to play in the halves for his new club, to partner either Chad Townsend, Kyle Flanagan or perhaps even Matt Moylan.
The most logical move here is to move Moylan back to fullback, place Johnson in the number seven and re-unite him with his former Warriors halves partner Chad Townsend, who then played in the number six.
Despite having an entire off-season to work on combinations, the fact that Johnson and Townsend played together at the Warriors will be invaluable to Shane Flanagan and his side.
So a likely spine of Moylan, Townsend, Johnson and Jayden Brailey looms. How does that stack up against a Holmes, Moylan, Townsend, Brailey combination?
Perhaps it’s bias but for mine the Sharks are now in a stronger position to challenge for the title than they were prior to Holmes exiting the club and the competition.
Hear me out.
Ok, first up this is a side that made it to a prelim final in 2018, only to be knocked out by a well rested and red hot Storm outfit playing in front of their home crowd.
The Moylan/Townsend combination took time to gel but ultimately, with the help of Holmes and co, they came within 80 minutes of the big dance. Fair to say that the club perhaps overachieved.
Holmes was an absolute attacking weapon during the second part of the season. He set a single season try scoring record for the club and finished second behind only a winger in the tally.
Not even I can spin this to say that Holmes leaving is a positive for the Shire-based club.
That said, it is more than fair to say that Moylan is a far superior ball-playing fullback than Holmes, and also fair to say that Johnson is a far more threatening player in attack than either Townsend or Moylan.
Moylan moving to fullback should be fairly seamless. Yes he did play the large percentage of 2018 in the halves but when he did shift to the number one temporarily he hadn’t lost a step.
Suddenly the Sharks had a third attacking option that they didn’t have previously, in terms of ball playing.
Moylan won’t have that elusiveness that Holmes offered in spades. He’s a yard slower than the speedy Holmes, but in terms of ball playing and creating try scoring opportunities for others, Moylan wins via an easy points decision.
At Penrith he was their leading try-assister from fullback. For the Sharks he laid on 20 this season. No one will forget the way he drifted across field to find Luke Lewis in that semi final to leave James Maloney clutching at air.
Moylan did that routinely all season. He won’t see quite as much ball as he did in 2018 but he’ll be able to read the play from behind, spot the over lap and attack.
Holmes, as good as he is, didn’t have that in his game. It was a developing part of his game is probably a fairer statement.
Moylan’s positional play is also superior to that of Holmes who despite tearing sides to shreds, was often guilty of misjudging a bouncing ball or kick. Again, cast your minds back to the semi final where Nathan Cleary beat him to a ball that should have been kicked into row Z.
If the Panthers don’t score then, they’re out of that game.
In typical Holmes style though he created the magical short kick off and recover play that ultimately lead to the Sharks field-goal.
If Moylan’s in that position, that Cleary try doesn’t get scored and Holmes doesn’t need to take the hail Mary option.
Moylan doesn’t have the explosiveness to turn 10 metre kick returns into 15/20 metre returns. That said, he made plenty of line breaks last season (Penrith in Penrith anybody?) and will threaten far more with the ball.
In terms of attacking threat, few, if any, come close to being able to produce what Johnson can. He had his consistency issues during his Warriors stint but when he decided to run the ball, no one could come close to his highlight reel.
Sharks fans will know all too well as Johnson made a living out of carving up our hapless defense.
We had a game won down at Shark Park only for Johnson to beat all 13 defenders, then run back to beat them again, en route to scoring a match-winning try late on.
Johnson brings with him an attack that no other side in the competition can match.
Outside him are stars like Josh Dugan and Josh Morris. Outside them are the likes of Sione Katoa, Sosaia Feki and Bronson Xerri. In front of him will be the ever reliable Matt Prior, wrecking ball Andrew Fifita and eventually the creative Wade Graham.
This is a completely new set of surroundings for the Kiwi mega star and look to be near perfect conditions to lift his game to the next level.
It’s hard to argue that any side who has just lost Valentine Holmes is in a better position to win a title than they were with Val, but the Sharks just may have opened up a different route back to the promised land.
They’ll start well behind the favourites such as the Roosters but in terms of bounce back, the Sharks have done perhaps just as well as they could have.