As Manly’s decade of dominance comes to an end on Sunday, you get the feeling Cronulla’s may be just beginning.
Should the Sharks knock off the Sea Eagles at Remondis Stadium on Sunday, they will have gone from wooden spooners to top four contenders in the space of 12 months.
While hooker Michael Ennis – who coach Shane Flanagan rates as the buy of the year – has provided a steadying influence and spark in attack, it’s the likes of young guns Valentine Holmes and Jack Bird that have given them that something special.
Bird, who was plucked from under the noses of St George Illawarra last year, came to the club billed as a second-rower with an ability to fill in at centre.
Instead, Flanagan saw something in the plucky 20-year-old and when Ben Barba failed to fire in the No.6 jersey early this year, Bird was thrown into the fray and instantly proved himself a natural pivot.
While winger Holmes has time and time again proven himself the go-to man in the clutch.
Three times this year he has snapped a field goal to get his side over the line and revealed it was something that wasn’t even in his repertoire until the pre-season.
After being told he would be taking kicking duties at the Auckland Nines – and with kicks in the exhibition tournament being drop goals instead of place kicks – he began practising.
While just 20, he has proven a cool head under pressure, kicking one-point winners against Gold Coast, Canberra and Parramatta.
Holmes says the Sharks feel like they are building towards something special and has declared his desire to take on the fullback position next year.
“I’d love to play fullback next year but it’s still a learning curve for me,” Holmes said.
“I’m learning a lot from Flash (Michael Gordon) being there at the moment.
“To get the the fullback spot next year would mean a lot.
“My natural game is to play what’s in front of me and have fun and try things that hopefully come off.”
The Sharks will take fourth spot with a win against the Sea Eagles, who are farewelling New Zealand Test five-eighth Kieran Foran and coach Geoff Toovey.
The Sea Eagles are set to miss the finals for the first time in a decade.
The club board has put its faith in incoming coach Trent Barrett to rebuild a side around Daly Cherry-Evans with their roster set to undergo a big turnover.
Of their 2013 grand final side, only nine players – Cherry-Evans, Brett Stewart, Jorge Taufua, Jamie Lyon, Steve Matai, Brenton Lawrence, Matt Ballin, Jamie Buhrer, Tom Symonds – will still be at Brookvale next year.
STATS THAT MATTER
* Manly have dominated Cronulla over the last several years, winning 11 of 12 matches.
* Close to 40 per cent of the tries Manly has conceded this season have come in the set following giving away a penalty.
* Valentine Holmes requires three more tries to equal David Peachey’s club record of 19 tries in a season.