For so long the hunters, the Cronulla Sharks have become the hunted, skipper Paul Gallen acknowledges, as the club sits atop the premiership ladder halfway through the NRL season.
The Sharks dramatic post-siren win over Canterbury on Monday night reaffirmed their status as premiership contenders, and the club might never have a better chance to end rugby league’s longest-running premiership drought.
After 13 rounds, the Sharks better Melbourne on percentages and are four points clear of premiers North Queensland and six points ahead of 2015’s other grand finalists, Brisbane.
The 2016 premiership was expected to be largely a two-horse race between the Cowboys and the Broncos, but the Sharks’ form has changed that.
The recruitment of halves James Maloney and Chad Townsend has brought points-scoring ability to a team that has long relied on grinding their way past opponents.
Fullback Ben Barba has returned to the form that resulted in him winning the 2012 Dally M medal, and Andrew Fifita has re-emerged as one of the game’s most damaging forwards.
Jack Bird and Valentine Holmes have continued on their trajectory as two of the game’s hottest rising stars, and their jobs have been made easier by an in-form pack led by Gallen and stocked with fellow veterans Michael Ennis, Luke Lewis and Chris Heighington, and NSW hopeful Wade Graham.
“We are at the top of the competition and we understand that whoever we play is going to be up for the game, but there is a great belief in our group,” Gallen said.
The Sharks have been catapulted to the top of the ladder courtesy of nine successive wins.
That run includes victories over Melbourne and Brisbane – proof the Sharks are the real deal in 2016.
They face another big test of their premiership credentials on Monday when they face North Queensland at Shark Park.
The Sharks lost the round-one encounter between the sides in Townsville. Their only other loss this year has been to Manly at Brookvale Oval in round three.
Gallen knows the Cowboys – with their Origin stars on board – pose as big a threat as anyone.
“Those are the games you want to play at the top of the table,” Gallen said.
“People call it (our form) a fairytale but we have done a lot of work to be where we are and we believe we deserve to be where we are.
“Hopefully, it will be a packed house and we perform to the standard we should.”