The 2016 NRL season was a great success for Cronulla Sharks, who picked up their first Premiership title since the club’s formation in the 1960s. In the process, the Sharks proved that nothing is impossible, after rising from ‘wooden spoon’ receivers in 2014, to champions just two years later. Shane Flanagan’s side are now looking to create another piece of history, as they aim to become the first side to successfully defend their title since Brisbane Broncos picked up back-to-back Premiers in 1997 and 1998.
Last season, Cronulla defeated Melbourne Storm 16-12 in the NRL Grand Final, and the two clubs again seem set to challenge for the title in 2017, currently occupying the top two places on the league ladder. Storm are four points ahead of the Sharks with 14 rounds gone this season, and a recent 18-13 victory at the Southern Cross Stadium was enough for Craig Bellamy’s side to open up a significant lead at the top of the table.
That defeat to Melbourne was the Sharks’ first in five NRL fixtures, with Flanagan’s men showing their champion form up until then, recording away victories over the likes of West Tigers and St George Illawarra Dragons, along with hard-fought home triumphs over the North Queensland Cowboys and Canterbury Bulldogs.
Flanagan’s side have been formidable away from home this season, picking up six victories from six fixtures, including an impressive display against Melbourne, where they prevented their closest rivals from scoring a try in 80 minutes. The problems for the Sharks this campaign have come at the Southern Cross Stadium, where they have just three victories and have suffered four defeats.
This mixed record sees the Sharks as third favourites to win the Grand Final, with the latest betting advice nevertheless suggesting that they would be worth backing at favourable odds of 13/2 to defend their title. Despite the Sharks being well in contention again in the NRL and Sosaia Feki continuing to impress in the three-quarters, there has been change within the Cronulla set-up, with three of their Grand Final heroes having left. Ben Barba and David Fifita were both released, whilst the hooker, Michael Ennis, opted to retire.
“MICHAEL ENNIS” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by NAPARAZZI
Ennis’ retirement caused the Sharks big concern in pre-season, and they moved to sign two hookers during the summer, with Manaia Cherrington and James Segeyaro recruited. However, it has been the performance of 21-year old Jayden Brailey in the number nine shirt that has impressed this season, with the dummy-half putting in performances beyond his years, as the Sharks go in search of a second successive title.
There is still a long way to go in the NRL season and the current form of Melbourne Storm sees them sat rightly as favourites to win the Grand Final later this year. But if Flanagan’s Sharks can iron out the little issues they currently have, they will undoubtedly be the team to challenge the Storm in October, where they could be fighting, not only for their second ever Premiership, but for the title of back-to-back champions.