Ricky’s NRL Previews Pt 4: Cronulla Sharks

The NRL Auckland Nines may be starting but our previews must roll on, as we take a look at the Cronulla Sharks in part four of our NRL previews. A side blessed with emerging talent and solid veterans, they have also made some crucial additions to their side, ones that have the potential to take them to the next level. But with that comes questions. Just who will get the fullback role amid all the speculation and will it be the right choice? How much can they get out of their veteran forwards and can they stay fit? And finally, just where does Jack Bird fit in given his versatility as a player.

Often a team that many like to see do well in light of incidents over the last number of years, the Cronulla Sharks have ploughed through the adversity put in front of them and shown that they have the talent in their roster to challenge the top sides, as they improve every year. Blessed with an array of youthful yet talented exuberance and a hard-nosed veteran forward pack, the Sharks have found the right balance to make a serious tilt at the premiership in 2016 or at least challenge for it once again. With several key additions such as James Maloney and the return of Chad Townsend, their halves stocks are boosted and they are in good stead – but can they get the best out of the duo from the get-go or, like many new partnerships, do they need time to gel.

James Maloney had his fair share of criticism last year, even though he did perform reasonably well over the course of the season. A talented player and still relatively young, it is likely that the onus will be on him to lead from the front, direct the attack and call the shots, to create the opportunities for the Sharks to score. But despite that, the role that Townsend will have to play should not be understated. An equally talented player in his own right, he also bore the brunt of some criticism in 2015, as he looks to kick-start his season with solid form and show glimpses of his ability at the start of the 2015 season. Individually, the duo are talented and can produce when in form. Collectively, they have to work with each other and for each other, to create as many sound, attacking opportunities as possible and form a partnership early to gel with each other.

And of course, the conjecture over who gets the fullback spot is one of the big questions right now. With three primary candidates for the role in Ben Barba, Valentine Holmes and Jack Bird, all three are capable of handling the role and performing well. All three players bring something different to the table in terms of their style of play. Barba’s speed and acceleration from the back would get the Sharks over the advantage line and onto the front foot early. Holmes’ smart play and powerful nature would provide the Sharks back-line with a different element, as he would lay the tone in an attacking sense with hard-running and determination. Whereas Bird would bring a new dynamic altogether, with a creative approach to the role, having played all of last season as a five-eighth and showcasing his ball skills in the halves. It is a telling factor when the reports suggest that not even Sharks coach Shane Flanagan knows who he will pick and with players training in different positions this off-season, the fans may not know who gets the nod until very close to Rd 1.

Following on from the last paragraph, it is important to assess the role of Jack Bird and where he might play, given his versatility as a player. The initial move to play him as a five-eighth was an interesting one in the eyes of many but in the end, it did pay off. Although not a natural ball-player, it was his running game that he utilised to good effect, based on his style of play having played other positions. As the season wore on, he gained more confidence with ball in hand and created opportunity, laying claim to retaining him at five-eighth for 2016. The arrival of James Maloney puts a spanner in the works in that regard, so now fans have been giving their view as to where he should play. Whilst regarded as a long-term lock and the likely heir to the role once Paul Gallen retires, his name has constantly been linked to the fullback role as previously mentioned. Also adept as both a centre and back-rower, having played the majority of his footy there coming through the Dragons ranks, it is clear that there are decisions to make about where he best fits into the team in light of the new signings, and where he will make the biggest impact.

Best Buy: When you look at who the Sharks have signed, this one is a no brainer really. James Maloney. Acquired from the Roosters, the Sharks immediately addressed any concerns fans may have had with their halves and signed the entertaining five-eighth. A crafty player, it was his form in 2014 especially that had everyone excited about his development, a sign that his hard work, exuberance and natural ability had finally shone through, as he became a core feature of the blistering attack of the Roosters side at the time. With a new halves partner at the Sharks, likely to be Chad Townsend, you would expect to see Maloney running the show and utilising his running game to take on the defensive line early and either make a half-break to catch them off-guard, or deliver a deft pass on the inside for a player in support. His addition gives the Sharks not only a quality halves duo but a great x-factor in Maloney, who when on song, can turn a game around and create opportunities.

Most Promising Talent: When you see his last name, it will instantly bring back memories of two former Sharks greats. Jack Rogers, the son of Matt and the grandson of Steve, is one player to really look out for. Emerging as a utility back much like his father late in the 2015 Holden Cup season, he showed that he had the goods to succeed. Nifty and crafty, his quickness often caught the opposition off-guard, as he excelled in the later periods when given an opportunity. Although as a player, he still has to develop, learn more and fine-tune his game, should he play first-grade at some point in his career, he will be the third generation Rogers’ to play in the NRL, no easy feat. That time will come, though, and for the time being, Sharks fans will want to see Jack perform well in the Holden Cup and potentially the NSW Cup, if given that opportunity.

2016 Gains: Kurt Capewell (2016), Josh Cleeland (2016), Jordan Drew (Brisbane Broncos, 2017), James Maloney (Sydney Roosters, 2018), Matt McIlwrick (Sydney Roosters, 2016), Joseph Paulo (Parramatta Eels, 2017), Jesse Sene-Lefao (Manly Sea Eagles, 2017), Chad Townsend (New Zealand Warriors, 2017)

Our predicted Rd 1 line-up:

1. Ben Barba
2. Val Holmes
3. Jack Bird
4. Gerard Beale
5. Sosaia Feki
6. Chad Townsend
7. James Maloney
8. Andrew Fifita
9. Michael Ennis
10. Sam Tagataese
11. Luke Lewis
12. Wade Graham
13. Paul Gallen (C)

14. Fa’amanu Brown
15. Chris Heighington
16. Jesse Sene-Lefao
17. Joseph Paulo

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