Ricky’s NRL Previews Pt 13: Cronulla Sharks

The home stretch is upon us as we hit the 13th team to be previewed, the Cronulla Sharks. With no end in sight for the ASADA scandal and the Sharks club that have been implicated in it, will it affect their performance in 2014? Will the coaching and staff changes in recent times have an affect – a new coach, board and boss. How will the players react to not working under Shane Flanagan in 2014? Questions galore – the other question is, can the Sharks have an impact?

GAINS: Blake Ayshford (Tigers) Matt Prior (St George Illawarra Dragons) Eric Grothe (Out of Retirement) Daniel Holdsworth (Hull FC) Jacob Gagan (Manly Sea Eagles) Tinirau Arona (Sydney Roosters).

For Sharks fans out there, they could ask – why sign players when we have the likes of Andrew Fifita, Todd Carney, Paul Gallen & co. at our disposal. All powerhouse players in their respective positions, despite their individual successes throughout, there was a need for the Sharks to shore up not only depth across the board but also improve on the centre position especially and they did that.
With the signings of Blake Ayshford and Eric Grothe especially, it adds further competition to the Sharks ranks for spots and will keep players on their toes and primed to perform.

Of the new recruits, perhaps the biggest shock without a doubt is that of Eric Grothe. Grothe, who retired several years ago to pursue other interests in music, decided to make a return to the NRL and it was the Sharks who came knocking and offered him a deal.
With work to do to get back into the swing of things – work that Grothe knows has to be done – the big question will be whether he can make a seamless transition back into the NRL or whether it will take him time to become accustomed to the recent – albeit subtle – changes that the NRL has undergone since his time out of the game.
Will we see some power running from him on the wing like we saw during his time at the Sydney Roosters and the Parramatta Eels, or will it be a while before he gets back to that similarly destructive form?
Either way and regardless of who you support, it is great to see the Grothe name back in the world of rugby leauge.

Another big talking point for the Sharks heading into the 2014 season is one that they were faced with this time last year as well and that is, ASADA. Sure, Sharks fans and players do not want to hear about it, though unfortunately, as long as the investigation is ongoing and as long as things take their due course, it is a topic that will continue to come up and make itself known. Whether it rears its ugly head or whether there is roses on the other side, who knows, but whether the Sharks fans, players, coaching staff and everyone else involved can do what is required to help their team win and be successful, does remain to be seen.
With the question mark of possible further sanctions from ASADA hanging over the heads of players especially – not that any such sanctions will occur – whether the players respond to the pressure and perform well or whether the adverse situation affects their form, time will tell. For the Sharks sake, you would hope that the players ignore the situation and focus on what they do best. Playing footy.

To add to that but go on a different point at the same time – it remains to be seen how the playing roster plays or whether they change or adapt a new style in light of Shane Flanagan not coaching in 2014 due to a suspension. With the players fans of Peter Sharp and the work that he has done, he can only do so much to implement a previous system and whether he incorporates new elements of his own into things also remains to be seen. Though it begs the question, just how many players miss Flanagan and how will his transition back into the Sharks head coaching role affect the team.

Enough of the negative stuff – Sharks fans have probably heard enough of it. The Sharks have a talented roster and it is one that can challenge the best sides on their day. With the back-line versatility of the likes of Michael Gordon and Jonathan Wright, to the exciting Todd Carney and to the powerhouse forwards in Andrew Fifita and Paul Gallen, the Sharks have potency in several positions.
With some players coming off career best form like Fifita, whether he and others can replicate such form for another year will not be an easy task by any means, though players of their calibre are expected to be consistent and maintain high levels of performance for several years on end.

One player who will be looking to make his mark on the 2014 season – and he has been mentioned earlier in this piece – is five-eighth, Todd Carney.
Carney has had his fair share of turbulent injury periods and inconsistencies over the past few years but he has shown that when he is performing well, fit, healthy and making an impact, that he can produce form on a consistent basis for the club. Such form is what he will need to keep the fans happy and his form is what will help to catapult the Sharks into a top eight spot. Form can be fickle and if Carney’s form is good enough, it could be the difference between a top 8 spot for the Sharks or a bottom 8 spot. Forming a steady partnership with Jeff Robson, it is a combination that has worked in the past and one that the club hopes can continue – given the success it gave them – barring any injuries to either player.

Overall, the Sharks have a lot of weight on their shoulders – much of it is off-field dramas, of course – but how much it will affect them remains to be seen. Whether they can ignore it and just play is another big question, and just how will the players, fans and everyone else react should further sanctions come of it all? If the club and the players can put all the off-field drama behind them and focus on the footy, they would be expected to make the top 8 and be in the finals once again.

Player To Watch: Ask any Sharks fan and they rate this young kid. Ask anyone who is an avid fan of the National Youth Competition (NYC) and they rate this kid. What is this kid’s name I hear you ask? That would be one Michael Lichaa. A tremendously talented player and young hooker, his skills have been on display at NYC level for quite some time now and fans across the NRL are starting to take notice. Notice to the point where other teams have expressed interest in acquiring him. With crafty dummy-half skills, fantastic awareness of the game – both as a dummy half player and a ball-runner – Lichaa’s stock is rising rapidly. With a chance to play first-grade in 2014 if one of the Sharks more experienced hookers goes down, he will be a player to keep your eye on as you would expect him to slot straight into the side and perform well. The talent is there and that much is known – the big key for Lichaa, though, is to crack into the first-grade side.

Here’s the Sharks team I’d go with:

1. Michael Gordon
2. Beau Ryan
3. Jonathan Wright
4. Blake Ayshford
5. Eric Grothe
6. Todd Carney
7. Daniel Holdsworth
8. Andrew Fifita
9. John Morris
10. Sam Tagataese
11. Wade Graham
12. Luke Lewis
13. Paul Gallen (C)

14. Anthony Tupou
15. Bryce Gibbs
16. Tinirau Arona
17. Isaac De Gois

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