The 2019 version of the Cronulla Sharks is set to be very different to the sides that have represented the Shire and beyond in the past few years.
Of course, the biggest change will come in the form of a new coach, John Morris, following the stepping down of 2016 title-winning coach Shane Flanagan.
The club will also be sans Clive Churchill medalist Luke Lewis following his retirement as well as long-time centre Ricky Leutele.
Then there is the departure of Valentine Holmes. A winger in the Sharks team of the half-century and the club’s record holder in terms of single-season tries, Holmes departure has been well spoken about and it’s fair to say we will probably never see him in the black, white and blue again.
Wade Graham will also be missing for at least the first third of the season due to an ACL injury suffered late last year.
All of the above would shake up the look of any side but the above all fail in comparison to the arrival of one Shaun Johnson.
No player in the competition would have completely re-shaped the way this club would play football more than the New Zealand ace.
For all of the recent success enjoyed by the club, including the 2016 title win, the 2018 prelim, and four straight finals appearances, the Sharks can never be accused of playing free-flowing, high-risk football.
During their run in their maiden Premiership in 2016, the Sharks were a far more attacking outfit than at any time in the post-Preston Campbell era.
Ben Barba ran riot and rarely went a game without a try and/or try assist. James Maloney was at the top of his attacking game. Valentine Holmes and Jack Bird former the most lethal right-hand side in the competition.
Throw in attacking threats from the likes of Lewis and Graham and the try-scoring (compared to the rest of their Sharks career) of both Beale and Feki and the Sharks were humming.
That said, they were still an era and a half behind the likes of the Raiders and the Storm.
The 2017 Sharks never got going. Fans waited and waited for the 2016 Sharks to return. They didn’t.
The 2018 Sharks had their moments, mainly against the Knights, but again never threatened any point scoring records, outside of Val’s try-scoring efforts.
For years and years, the Sharks relied on their scrappy forwards getting a role on and allowing their halves and centres to bash over the line.
Recently the Wade Graham inside ball has set the ET family hill alight while Matt Moylan ran up, what felt like, 20 try assists in a game against Newcastle.
That said, not since the aforementioned Campbell’s Dally M medal-winning year have the Sharks held the attacking weapons in their armoury as they will in 2019.
That all comes about due to their late signing of the most attacking, yet enigmatic, player in the competition in Shaun Johnson.
SJ’s arrival suddenly has Sharks fans lifting their eyebrows in hope that there could be some attractive football played in the Shire for the next few seasons.
Sharks fans won’t have forgotten the try Johnson scored those few years back in the final minutes to win the unwinnable. I believe it was 2015. It is too painful to search and re-watch.
For those who haven’t seen it, the Sharks were up by four (or so) with like two minutes to go. Rather than kick the ball deep or roll it over the sideline, we put the ball up.
Long story short the Warriors went the length of the field and on the back of 325 Johnson steps, SJ would score near the sticks then convert to win the game.
Imagine that, but in the right coloured jersey!?
Johnson’s arrival also frees up some pretty heavy artillery elsewhere.
Matt Moylan returns to fullback allowing the Sharks to play with three halves. Moylan’s ability to lay on tries from the custodian position for the Panthers would surely have Sharks fans trying to hide their grins.
As well as Moylan played at six in 2018, he didn’t score as many tries as was expected. Expect that number to triple, at least, this year.
An all Origin rep centre pairing will also surely benefit from Johnson’s ability to create space, bust the line and place attacking kicks on a dime.
Josh Morris and Josh Dugan, for all the online jokes about his injury history, are two classy, experienced centres with closets full of rep jumpers.
Sione Katoa will play outside the man who laid on plenty of tries for the likes of Vatuvei and Fusitu’a in recent years.
Then there is SJ’s halves partner Chad Townsend, who 2016 aside, played his best footy at the Warriors.
Chad is not the kind of player who will bust defences apart with fleet footwork, but there are very few times he lets anyone down.
Knowing Johnson will take care of the razzle-dazzle, the Chad can focus on his running and kicking game.
Throw in boom rookie Bronson Xerri, who mark my words will see plenty of footy in 2019, and Johnson has plenty of talent outside him.
Playing behind the likes of Woods, Gallen, Fifita and (soon) Graham, there aren’t too many forward battles that the Sharks lose. This will allow Johnson space and time to create havoc.
If it sounds like I’m enjoying writing this, I am. I’m genuinely excited to see an attacking, off the wall, half in Johnson run things on those cold Saturday nights at Southern Cross Group Stadium.
Whether or not he can produce those kinds of performances week in, week out, is another question altogether, but one thing that is for sure is that for the first time in a long time the Sharks have an attacking star in their ranks who can completely change the future of the club.