Pre-season prediction: 4th
Actual finish: 3rd (Premiers)
Cronulla Sharks 2017 Player Movements
“Turn your porchlight off because we’re coming home with the trophy!!!”
With those now immortal words, Paul Gallen officially ended the pain that has been felt by fans of the Sharks for almost 50 years.
Andrew Fifita’s incredibly match-winning effort, and the Sharks ridiculous scramble in defence as the full-time siren sounded, showed just how desperate the Sharks were and how much they wanted it.
There wasn’t a single player in the NRL squad who didn’t contribute in some way. All had their moments, especially youngster Luke Capewell who stood up in the pressure cooker atmosphere of finals footy. This kid has a big future ahead of him.
I could dedicate full paragraphs to each of Maloney, Townsend, Barba, Lewis, Fifita, Prior, Ennis, Graham, Gallen, Holmes, Bird, Leutele, Feki, Flanagan and others. Everything clicked this season for the Sharks and as a result 49 years of torment are forgotten.
Star player: Ben Barba
Multiple players are able to lay claim to this honour including Maloney, Fifita, Prior, and Ennis, but for mine, the Sharks superstar fullback was absolutely key to their title success.
Anyone disputing the decision needs to only look at his stats: 15 tries, 18 try assists, 18 line breaks, and those were without even taking the finals into consideration, where he scored the most important try of his career.
Barba was the ultimate fullback in both attack and defence, and if not for the fact other players were constantly taking points off him in the Dally M voting, he would have come close to matching his efforts from the Bulldogs.
The news that he will not be rejoining the club following the NRL’s stalling on registering his new contract will certainly deal a blow to the Sharks hopes of going back to back, although young Valentine Holmes is waiting in the wings.
Season highlight: 32-20 win over the Cowboys (Grand Final Qualifier)
Obviously the Grand Final victory was the season highlight; it was the club’s greatest highlight in almost 50 years of existence, but so much has been written about October 2nd that the side’s best performance of the season is often overlooked.
I haven’t seen a side as good as the Cowboys outplayed so convincingly in such a big game in many, many years.
Take no notice of the margin of victory, the Sharks were a 20 to 30 point better side than their opponents, and switched off mentally and physically with ten minutes to go, allowing the Cowboys to score a few late consolation tries.
James Maloney was absolutely on fire for 70 minutes. He had the ball on a string and bossed the game from the very first set until the 70th minute, where he like the rest of his side took the foot off the pedal.
The Sharks, in front of a massive and vocal crowd, marched through to the Grand Final in dominant fashion. The sight of Chad Townsend shedding tears of relief and pride at the final siren was one of the iconic moments of the season.
Best signing: Manaia Cherrington
The Sharks managed to keep a hold of almost all of their premiership drought ending players with only Michael Ennis exiting the club. The 273 game veteran was almost going to be almost impossible to replace.
Step forward extremely talented former tiger Manaia Cherrington.
Cherrington was often forgotten at the Tigers with all the focus on Robbie Farah and his public falling out with Jason Taylor, but the 22 year-old quietly went about his business and looks set favourite to take over the vacant number nine jersey.
Of course the Sharks are linked to James Segeyaro, which would likely see Cherrington slip to second in the pecking order, but either way Cherrington has a big job to do.
Ennis provided so much out of dummy half. It would be unfair to expect the youngster to come in and play like Ennis, but Cherrington will be looked upon to provide an alternate attacking option to the halves and fullback.
He certainly has the talent to become something special.
– Pressure Off: Every time the Sharks start stringing a few wins together, fans and players alike are forced to hear about how many sides before them have failed to capture the big one. Now that the title is won, the pressure is off. That’s not to say there won’t be pressure to win a second title, but there is no better pressure reliever than winning that first title.
– Ready to go again?: Ennis , and now Barba, aside, the Sharks managed to keep their premiership winning side together. Much like the Cowboys, they will now be very well positioned to try and defend their crown, which history has proven is almost impossible. With Gallen, Lewis, and Heigno all entering what looks like it could be their final year, there will be plenty of motivation to end on a high note and go back to back.
– Records tumble: If there was a club record at the club, the Sharks almost certainly beat, or smashed it, in 2016. The win streak, the streak of games without a loss, points scored, crowd numbers, try scoring records, merchandise sales, they all fell. The club is now at its strongest point of all time in terms of roster, management and financial future.
Season Grading: A+
It’s almost impossible for a side to have the ‘perfect season’, but the Sharks may have come as close as any side is likely to get in the salary cap era.
The win streak will long be remembered, but not nearly as vividly as the sight of Paul Gallen holding the prize that has eluded the club for so very long high above his head as Up! Up! Cronulla belted out across ANZ Stadium.
The sea of black, white and blue stretched far beyond the confines of the gigantic Homebush stadium, with flags still hung in the main street of Cronulla.
A few off-field distractions and the defeat to the Storm with the minor premiership on the line aside, surely no Sharks fan could have dreamed of a season like 2016.