Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Cronulla on track to end 50-year wait

A remarkable resilience and turn-around in the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks Football Club's fortunes has them on-track to end their half-a-century wait for a maiden Rugby League premiership.

The Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks of 2016.
The Sharks currently sit on top of the Telstra NRL Premiership Ladder for the first time in 16 years and with two-points already secured from this weekend’s bye round, they look set to stay there for the short-term future. But with the side Coach Shane Flanagan keeps putting out each week and the squad at his disposal, it’s hard to see them falling far from the position they currently occupy.

While Sharks’ fans who have ridden-out the tumultuous period over the last few years and been through the historical humps and bumps of the club will no doubt be enjoying the view at the top, they could be set for a season end like never before.

Critical to the Shark’s chances at claiming the sport’s ultimate prize this year will be the way they come through the State of Origin period. With three of their side’s best players – Paul Gallen, James Maloney and Andrew Fifita – set to start the series for New South Wales, the Sharks face a nervous wait over the next couple of months to see if the trio comes through unscathed.

While no doubt the influence of representative footy will spur the group on to come back ready to achieve something special for their NRL side, the risk of a significant injury to any of the three has the ability to de-rail the Shark’s journey.

The key to Cronulla’s success in season 2016 has been the side’s mix of youth and experience. Un-earthed during last year’s season, youngsters Jack Bird, Valentine Holmes and Sosaia Feki have provided the much-needed exuberance and flair to the one of the NRL’s toughest sides.

While the Sharks have always had the grit and the grind with their hard-nosed forward pack operating under Paul Gallen’s leadership, they’ve been able to add the glamour to their side with their emerging superstar-backline.

Complimenting the balance to the side has been the re-discovery of form by 26-year-old ex-Bulldogs star, Ben Barba. The flashy custodian has managed to return to the style of the play that saw him win a Dally M Medal at the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs in 2012.

While Barba’s freakish breakout year playing under Des Hasler was one of the best rookie entries to the game in a long time, he had been unable to emulate those performances for both the Brisbane Broncos – who he played for in 2014 – and the Sharks in 2015.

With the enigmatic fullback now back to approaching his best, Cronulla’s chances of taking out this year’s competition will increase with every two points that gets added to their tally as the weeks’ go by.

The biggest battle for the side to progress through, and past September, won’t come from the few top-clubs that continue to dominate the rest of the pack, but from the pressure they place on themselves.

Having already beaten the Melbourne Storm, Brisbane Broncos, and gone down in a tight one to the Cowboys with an understrength side in round one; Cronulla have already proven they have what it takes to beat the best in the business.

In their 50th season of first-grade Rugby League, the Sharks have an opportunity to re-write their own script and change the club’s history forever. On the verge of breaking one of Australian sport’s longest running-droughts, the club that looked destined to fall to the commercialisation of the game and shipped off to a far-flung relocated region just a few short years ago, now appears ready to take their destiny into their own hands.

A passion and pride that has always burnt brightly in the Shire could be set for ignition into a fully-lit march towards ANZ Stadium and the first weekend in October. With a deep web of rusted-on, hard-core fans across the game, opposition sides should be weary of the club that last year charted a plane to their elimination final in Townsville with the marketing tag of ‘Sharks on a Plane’.

Indeed, a title designed just to humour, no one will be laughing if the Sharks manage to overcome the parochial-odds tag the rest of the game’s fans continue to lamented them with. Jack Gibson’s famous quote: ‘Waiting for the Sharks to win a premiership is like leaving the porch lamp on for Harold Holt’ usually sums up the consensus that outsiders give the Sharks of ever lifting the trophy.

But hang on, didn’t a sporting side just win a competition at the astronomical odds of 5000-1?

Didn’t they just lift a trophy that bookmakers said ‘Elvis was more likely to be found alive’ than them doing so?

Didn’t their run build from the belief of the players, the spirit of the fans; and finish with a winner’s tag that no-one, absolutely no-one, ever thought was possible?

That team showed a togetherness, determination, and sense of teamwork that Cronulla could be beginning to emulate.

The skies the limit, nothing’s impossible.

Clear your porches.