Paul Gallen’s last year, the signing of Shaun Johnson and a possible coaching change. Drama for the Cronulla Sharks and it is still only 2018.
Just how will all of that affect their chances in 2019 and can they overcome the adversity they face?
Since flying high following their maiden premiership success, inconsistency has crept into the Sharks overall game, as we dissect the issues plaguing their team.
Johnson changes the dynamics
The signing is confirmed! Shaun Johnson will join the Sharks from 2019. Is he the man and player they need to propel them even further, though?
A gifted player and ball-runner on any day, Johnson is a player that can make a difference for your team but who also needs a stabiliser alongside him.
If Townsend can step up to the plate and allow Johnson to just focus on his running game – his strength – the combination could work.
This would ideally be the combination for the Sharks, given Johnson and Matt Moylan are similar players when it comes to their style of play.
From a different perspective, the other answer in the halves could be Kyle Flanagan.
Many Sharks fans see him as a potential star but with the signing of Johnson, there are really just two options out there.
The first; he is a surprise selection in the halves alongside Johnson, seeing as he is also a stabiliser and can control games when needed.
The second – and perhaps the least popular of the two – is that he is not named, grows impatient with no opportunity and opts to leave.
Signing Johnson unfortunately makes that a very real possibility and so weighing up when and how to appropriately blood Flanagan is crucial.
If he is indeed set for stardom in the NRL, he will want the opportunity to shine sooner rather than later.
And, in many ways, he has a great mentor and leader in Johnson alongside him to bring up to NRL speed.
When fit, he would be the first back-rower selected in the Sharks side. Unfortunately, Wade Graham’s injury means he will miss a decent chunk of the 2019 season.
That is perhaps the biggest blow and downside for the Sharks heading into the new season in more ways than one.
A hard-runner on the edges, the dynamic that Graham brings to any club or team he might play for is very unique.
Traditionally, back-rowers run set lines, hit gaps and feed off their halves.
For Graham, he can just set those plays up himself given his ability to steer the ship and control the ball.
Having previously played 5/8, Graham utilises those skills to provide the Sharks with an extra dynamic out wide.
Whether it is a draw and pass to suck a defender in, whether it is a deft kick behind the line for a repeat set or a crafty pass, Graham has that ability.
With his injury, the team dynamics shift significantly and they are left with one less play-making option in case the going gets tough.
No Holmes, no fanfare?
Valentine Holmes. What a season he had in 2018. When many thought he would take a while to transition to fullback full-time, he excelled.
Putting on a show and carving up individual defences on his own, Holmes’ loss is perhaps bigger than many might realise.
Although the Sharks do have two experienced players that can play fullback in Josh Dugan and Matt Moylan, the two are very different players.
Holmes excels at carting the ball back from a kick and can single-handedly produce a play or a moment to spark the Sharks attack.
Moylan and Dugan do have game-breaking abilities of their own but not to the extent that Holmes does, which could be costly.
Moylan’s strengths lie in his ball-playing ability. Having played plenty of five-eighth in his career, he is comfortable when it comes to assisting and setting tries up.
For Dugan, who has recently transitioned into more of a centre, he was, at one point, close to being an elite fullback.
Injuries struck him down, however, and he has not been able to recapture that same sort of magic or form.
His very own style is not too dissimilar from that of Holmes’; the difference being his age and the injuries that have recently held him back.
Of course, an option from left-field that we do not yet know about could emerge and surprise us all.
When push comes to shove, though, the loss of Holmes may just be larger than many people think.
Gains and Losses
Gains: Josh Morris (Canterbury Bulldogs, 2020), Braydon Trindall (2020), Shaun Johnson (New Zealand Warriors, 2021) and Aaron Woods (Canterbury Bulldogs, 2021).
Losses: Kurt Dillon (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Edrick Lee and Jesse Ramien (both Newcastle Knights), Trent Hodkinson (Manly Sea Eagles), Ricky Leutele (Toronto Wolfpack), Joseph Paulo (St Helens), James Roumanos (Canterbury Bulldogs) and Luke Lewis (retired).
Player to Watch
Although all the focus might just be on Kyle Flanagan, there is another young Shark that has many fans excited.
His name is Bronson Xerri. Now at the club until at least 2021, he has successfully come through the club ranks.
A strong performer, a talented player and still only 18, Xerri’s ability has been raved about by Sharks fans in the past.
With a potential NRL spot up for grabs in the centres, it remains to be seen whether the club believe Xerri is up for that opportunity.
When it arises, however, the U18’s and U20’s NSW Origin player is sure to impress and get people’s attention.
NRL News Predicted Line-up
1. Matt Moylan
2. Sosaia Feki
3. Josh Morris
4. Josh Dugan
5. Bronson Xerri
6. Shaun Johnson
7. Chad Townsend
8. Andrew Fifita
9. Jayden Brailey
10. Matt Prior
11. Wade Graham (when fit)
12. Kurt Capewell
13. Paul Gallen (C)
14. Aaron Woods
15. Scott Sorenson
16. Jayson Bukuya
17. Ava Seumanufagai
Coach: John Morris