Will Evans’ series of 2018 NRL club previews appeared in the February/March issue of Rugby League Review magazine.
Cronulla endured the customary premiership hangover in 2017, winning only half of their games in the second half of the season to limp into playoffs in fifth before being run down in the first week of the finals by North Queensland.
The Sharks have farewelled five members of their 2016 grand final side – headlined by NSW Origin stars James Maloney and Jack Bird – but have signed a pair of blue-chip players capable of returning the club to the NRL penthouse.
Penrith playmaker Matt Moylan and Test gun Josh Dugan are near-certainties to replace Maloney and Bird at five-eighth and centre respectively, despite their compelling claims to the No.1 jumper. Coach Shane Flanagan is set to stick with representative winger Valentine Holmes in the fullback spot.
The possible diversion from that line-up forecast comes in the form of the recent acquisition of Trent Hodkinson, who has been touted as a back-up half and mentor for the club’s up-and-coming playmakers, but could easily slot into the starting side, allowing Moylan to shift to fullback and Holmes to the wing.
The Sharks have also added underrated Tigers prop Ava Seumanufagai, robust Souths three-quarter Aaron Gray and young Cowboys forward Braden Uele. But will that be enough to cover a depth drain that has seen first-grade regulars Gerard Beale, Chris Heighington, Sam Tagataese, Jeremy Latimore and Fa’amanu Brown depart?
Boom hooker Jayden Brailey, front-rowers Andrew Fifita and Matt Prior, and back-row trio Wade Graham, Luke Lewis and Paul Gallen make up arguably the competition’s best starting pack, but forward depth and the ability of a rejigged backline to gel loom as the biggest question marks hanging over the Sharks’ campaign.
BEST RECRUIT: Matt Moylan has the talent and skill-set to be a massive plus for Cronulla, though he is set to be tasked with filling a massive Maloney-shaped hole. He had an unhappy 2017 with Penrith but without the burden of the captaincy, playing behind a dominant pack and in a new environment, Moylan should prove again that he is among the NRL’s premier match-winners.
STRENGTH: A forward-pack loaded with elite-level players, a spine dripping with class and a great balance of grunt and attacking firepower across the team sheet.
WEAKNESS: The danger that the premiership hangover extends into a second season – as 2014 champs South Sydney experienced – and uncertainty around how superstar recruits Moylan and Dugan, both strong personalities with off-field rap sheets, fit into the tight-knit Cronulla squad.
KEY MAN: After a magnificent World Cup campaign, Wade Graham must be in the ‘world’s best forward’ conservation. A tough, hard-working and skilful game-breaker, Graham provides an invaluable extra point of attack on the Sharks’ right edge and has been a leader within this team for several years.
PLAYER TO WATCH: It wasn’t the smoothest transition from wing to fullback last year for Valentine Holmes, but it also wasn’t as rocky as some made out. The arrival of former NSW No.1s Moylan and Dugan sparked talk that Holmes was headed back to the flank – aided by his incredible feats as a winger for Queensland and Australia in 2017 – but the 22-year-old will get first crack at the custodian role. Expect Holmes to stake a claim as a top-10 player in the game.
YOUNG GUN: Jayden Brailey could hardly have been more impressive in his maiden NRL campaign, short-listed for Dally M Rookie of the Year honours despite missing six weeks with a broken jaw. Gutsy, industrious and sharp out of dummy-half, Brailey has future Blues No.9 written all over him.
UNDER PRESSURE: Halfback Chad Townsend has come along in leaps and bounds since returning to Cronulla from the Warriors in 2016, but being paired with Maloney contributed enormously to that improvement. With the less dominant Moylan filling the five-eighth role, Townsend needs to pick up the slack in regards to steering the Sharks around the paddock. With Hodkinson joining the club, coach Flanagan does have other options.
NEEDS TO IMPROVE: Seemingly on the cusp of becoming an elite hooker a couple of years ago, James Segeyaro faded out of favour at Penrith and had a controversial stint with Leeds before landing on his feet at Cronulla. But the Sharks need more interchange impact from the Papua New Guinea international if he is to occupy a regular bench spot, with Brailey more than capable of playing 80 minutes at dummy-half.
THE COACH: Shane Flanagan cemented himself as one of the game’s top coaches by leading Cronulla to a maiden premiership. But as South Sydney and Canterbury showed last year with Michael Maguire and Des Hasler, clubs won’t tolerate a team going backwards for long – regardless of previous success. Flanagan will be hell-bent on guiding the Sharks back to the NRL’s top echelon after regressing slightly in 2017.
LAST FIVE COACHES:
Shane Flanagan (2010-13, 2015-current)
Jamie Shepherd (2014)
Peter Sharp (2014)
Ricky Stuart (2007-10)
Stuart Raper (2004-06)
TAB PREMIERSHIP ODDS: $15.00
PREDICTED FINISH: Sixth
GAINS: Josh Dugan (St George Illawarra Dragons), Aaron Gray (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Trent Hodkinson (Newcastle Knights), Matt Moylan (Penrith Panthers), Ava Seumanufagai (Wests Tigers), Scott Sorensen (Canberra Raiders), Braden Uele (North Queensland Cowboys)
LOSSES: Gerard Beale (New Zealand Warriors), Jack Bird (Brisbane Broncos), Fa’amanu Brown (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs), Jordan Drew (released), Chris Heighington (Newcastle Knights), Jeremy Latimore (St George Illawarra Dragons), James Maloney (Penrith Panthers), Sam Tagataese (Brisbane Broncos), Jayden Walker (Penrith Panthers), Tony Williams (Parramatta Eels)
BEST LINE-UP IN 2018
1 Valentine Holmes
2 Sosaia Feki
3 Josh Dugan
4 Ricky Leutele
5 Aaron Gray
6 Matt Moylan
7 Chad Townsend
8 Andrew Fifita
9 Jayden Brailey
10 Matt Prior
11 Luke Lewis
12 Wade Graham
13 Paul Gallen
14 Jayson Bukuya
15 Ava Seumanufagai
16 Joseph Paulo
17 James Segyaro