It’s top four or bust for Cronulla in 2016 after their early and late season fadeouts last year, according to coach Shane Flanagan.
The Sharks started last NRL season 0-4 and their upset final-round loss to Manly denied them a top-four finish. That came before their year ended in highly forgettable fashion in a 39-0 semi-final drubbing by eventual premiers North Queensland.
But with a new year comes new hope and Flanagan insists his side have learned the lessons of 2015. The Sharks’ have boosted their squad with the key acquisitions of ex-Sydney Roosters five-eighth James Maloney and Chad Townsend, who returns to his junior club after two seasons with the Warriors.
Importantly, Flanagan says he has finally put together the squad he wants.
Asked if this season is the Sharks’ best chance of a premiership in recent memory, Flanagan says: “I’d like to think so.
“I’d like to think the squad has got better the last couple of years that I’ve been coaching them.
“We had a reasonable year last year, we put ourselves in the race at the end of the year and I’d like to think we can do that again this year.
“We can push into that top four. We fell short last year but it’s definitely a goal this year to make sure we don’t fall short.”
After a long off-season of reflection, there is a belief within the Cronulla playing group that the blow that killed off their 2015 campaign was their final-round loss to Manly.
Had the Sharks got over the line that day, they would have finished in the top four, however slid to sixth, depriving them of a second bite at the cherry in the finals.
It led them to dwell on their poor start to last season, when they stalled out of the blocks to be 0-4, and were left to make up ground the rest of the year.
Flanagan says a similar start this year would be unacceptable and the first few weeks of the new season has become a major focus.
“We shouldn’t be leaving it to the last game to make it – we should be able to put ourselves in a position to where we don’t have to win the last game of the year to make the top four,” Flanagan said.
The career of inspirational captain Paul Gallen is drawing to a close and he is desperate to lift the Provan-Summons trophy before he retires.
They have some of the best young talent in the competition in Valentine Holmes and Jack Bird. Hooker Michael Ennis last year proved one of the best pick ups in the competition and will again be a key plank of their title charge.
Finishes over the past three seasons: 2015 – 6th, 2014 – 16th, 2013 – 5th.
Coach: Shane Flanagan
Captain: Paul Gallen
Gains: Jordan Drew (Brisbane), James Maloney (Sydney Roosters), Matt McIlwrick (Sydney Roosters), Joseph Paulo (Parramatta), Jesse Sene-Lefao (Manly), Chad Townsend (Warriors)
Losses: Josh Addo-Carr (Wests Tigers), Tinirau Arona (Wakefield), Blake Ayshford (Warriors), Michael Gordon (Parramatta), Jeff Robson (Warriors), Kyle Stanley (retired), Anthony Tupou (Wakefield).
Strength: Playmakers James Maloney and Chad Townsend shape as key buys for the club. After performing admirably without an recognised halves combination (Jack Bird and Jeff Robson) last year, the duo boast plenty of experience and could be the missing link.
Weakness: Outside backs. The Sharks boast a battle-hardened forward pack and experienced playmakers, whether or not they have firepower in the three-quarter line is questionable. Valentine Holmes is still learning his craft while Gerard Beale, Ricky Leutele and Sosaia Feki are serviceable but not noted try-scorers.
Best team: Jack Bird, Valentine Holmes, Gerard Beale, Ricky Leutele, Sosaia Feki, James Maloney, Chad Townsend, Sam Tagataese, Michael Ennis, Andrew Fifita, Luke Lewis, Wade Graham, Paul Gallen. Interchange: Ben Barba, Jayson Bukuya, David Fifita, Chris Heighington.
Predicted finish: 6th