We’re just one round into the 2018 NRL season and already one coach is facing a decision that will certainly affect his club’s 2018 season, but also possibly the long-term future of the club as well.
That man is Cronulla Sharks coach Shane Flanagan who must decide on how best to fit Josh Dugan, Matt Moylan and Valentine Holmes into the run-on 13 in order to maximise output from his three-star attacking players.
All the pre-season talk in the shire centred around how the side would line up. The trial form indicated that Valentine Holmes would return to the role at fullback, one in which he filled in 2017.
The Sharks had a disappointing 2017 season after failing to reproduce the attacking football of 2016 that saw them end their 49-year title drought.
The biggest difference between the 2016 and 2017 editions of the Sharks came due to Ben Barba’s release from the club. The Sharks sorely missed his ball-playing abilities. They too missed the impact of Holmes on the wing after the youngster shifted into the custodian role.
Despite having an absolute blinder in the trial against the Tigers, Holmes turned in a nightmare performance last Friday night against the Cowboys.
Calls have already surfaced for Holmes to be returned to the wing allowing star recruit Josh Dugan to see far more ball than was afforded to him in the centres.
Holmes, arguably the best winger in the game right now, stared for the Kangaroos in the World Cup on the flank. He also made the difference for Queensland in the 2017 Origin series, again on the wing.
The general belief in the Shire is that the Sharks are a far stronger side with Holmes on the wing, allowing either the hard running Dugan or the ball playing Moylan to slot into the number one.
The only problem is that Holmes, understandably, has his focus purely on the fullback spot.
It’s only natural that a young player who stared in the role in the lower grades would want the extra responsibility and money that comes along with the number one jersey.
The Sharks had to fight off genuine interest from the Cowboys, Val’s home-town team, to re-sign their prized asset. It was no secret that Holmes was seen as the club’s long-term number one, and Val was paid as much.
Holmes was chosen in the role over Jack Bird, with Bird eventually moving onto the Broncos in order to see more ball. The Sharks seemingly chose Holmes over Bird.
Any decision to shift Holmes back to the wing could potentially upset a player who is signed only until the end of 2019, with an option for the 2020 season.
Following the Sharks trip to Townsville, there have been unconfirmed talks of Holmes being homesick. As a 22-year-old who has lived away from home for the better part of five years, you can’t begrudge him that feeling, if they are indeed true.
Coupled with the off-contract status of Cowboys number one Lachlan Coote it’s not a huge jump to see the possibility of Holmes in a Cowboys jumper in the future.
Any decision to move Holmes to the wing long-term may realistically shape the career of Holmes. Although I believe Holmes to be the most valuable winger in the game, it’s not unfair to question why a side would pay a winger in the same bracket as a top fullback.
Holmes may yet develop into one of the game’s best number ones. He certainly has the talent. Some of his efforts in the role last year for the Sharks were eye-watering. His ability to break the line has defences on edge and looking out for him.
Yes his ball playing ability if not up there with the likes of Slater, Boyd or even team-mate Moylan, but at 22 he’s not yet a finished product.
The Sharks showed their hand in the off-season in offering Mitchell Pearce a huge deal to sign for the club. The thought was that with Pearce and Townsend in the halves, Moylan at fullback, Dugan at centre and Holmes on the wing, the side would be better than even their 2016 premiership side.
Unfortunately, Pearce opted for the challenge in the Hunter but the signing of former Origin halfback Trent Hodkinson looked to renew those thoughts.
The presence of Dugan and Moylan, two Origin-level fullbacks, was always going to put pressure on Flanagan should his first-choice fullback fail to fire early on.
Although it has only been one week, and a loss to the premiership favourites, the Sharks need to ensure Josh Dugan sees far more ball than he has in the pre-season and round one. Moving him to fullback will certainly make the side more dangerous, while Holmes on the wing will give opposition markers nightmares.
Alternatively, Hodkinson coming into the halves, freeing Moylan up to return to the number one role would see Dugan and Holmes reform their World Cup-winning partnership. For mine THAT is the strongest Sharks side. Holmes and Dugan can roam for the ball while Moylan can play as a third half.
There’s no real doubt that short-term, Holmes on the wing makes the Sharks are far more dangerous outfit.
That said, it could also have a very real and long-lasting effect on the future for the club.
If Holmes is willing to serve his time on the wing and develop under Moylan and Dugan, he could very well become something ridiculously special for Shane Flanagan.
On the other hand, if he sees the move as a demotion, the Sharks loss could be the Cowboys gain.
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