Sport Rugby League NRL season preview: Cronulla Sharks

NRL season preview: Cronulla Sharks

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Fearing the worst and hoping for the best has very much become a way of life at Cronulla.

But at least the Sharks will start the 2014 NRL season knowing they cope well with prolonged uncertainty and speculation and their expectations are high.

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Todd Carney. Photo: Getty

It’s been more than a year since the ‘darkest day in Australian sport’ when anti-doping agency ASADA began a probe centred around the club’s 2011 supplements program.

None of the 10 players interviewed by ASADA last year have learned if they have cause for concern as the investigation drags on.

However, the NRL have taken action against the club over governance issues, slapping them with a million dollar fine and suspending coach Shane Flanagan for 12 months along with the Sharks’ former strength and conditioning coach Trent Elkin.

The pair are appealing the verdicts, but until the matter is resolved Peter Sharp has replaced Flanagan.

The 59-year-old former Manly and Hull FC coach is very much the reluctant stand-in and says he’d be happy to return to his role as Flanagan’s No.2.

“It is what it is, and everyone at this club is just pitching in and doing their best,” Sharp says.

Despite the turmoil of last year, Cronulla enjoyed their best season since 2008, finishing fifth and reaching the second week of the finals where they lost narrowly to Manly.

“We are confident we can go better this year,” Sharp said.

“We have a seasoned group of players and they’ve had to get to used to a difficult situation.

“But we feel we are better for the experience of last year and we will start the season confident that we can improve on last season.”

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Michael Lichaa. Photo: Getty

Sharp is confident key playmaker Todd Carney will be fit for the round one clash with the Gold Coast at Remondis Stadium after injuring his hamstring during the Auckland Nines.

Luke Lewis is the only regular starter who’s unlikely to be ready to start the season as he continues his rehabilitation from reconstruction surgery after dislocating his shoulder during Australia’s World Cup campaign.

The 30-year-old NSW back-rower is expected to be back in action for the round four clash with Newcastle.

Sharp also has high hopes for new recruit Blake Ayshford who became the latest of a string of Wests Tigers players to make the switch to the Sutherland Shire.

The centre is reunited with former teammates Andrew Fifita, Bryce Gibbs, Beau Ryan, John Morris and Chris Heighington and Sharp believes the 23-year-old can kick-start his career with his new club.

“He’s trained very well and he probably needed a change of environment to kick along,” he said.

“I thought he was outstanding in the nines and we hope he can take that into the new season.”


 CRONULLA SHARKS

Premierships: None

Finishes over the past three seasons: 2013 – 5th, 2012 – 7th, 2011 – 13th

Interim coach: Peter Sharp

Captain: Paul Gallen

Gains: Blake Ayshford (Wests Tigers), Daniel Holdsworth (Hull, UK), Matt Prior (Dragons), Eric Grothe (unattached), Siosaia Vave (Storm), Tinirau Arona (Roosters), Jacob Gagan (Manly)

Losses: Jayson Bukuya (Warriors), Jon Green (Broncos), Stewart Mills (Broncos), Tyrone Peachey (Panthers), Ben Pomeroy (Catalan, France), Ben Ross (retired), Mark Taufua (retired), Chad Townsend (Warriors), Matt Wright (Cowboys).

Strength: Paul Gallen may be reaching the veteran stage of his career, but the NSW skipper is still very much the heart and soul of the Sharks and goes into the new season injury-free for the first time in two years.

Weakness: The Sharks have a squad good enough to match any team in the NRL, but the lingering cloud of the ASADA investigation hanging over the club and the loss of suspended coach Shane Flanagan could hinder their hopes of a first premiership.

Money man: Todd Carney. On his day and when he’s fit and focused, Carney is a good as any half in the NRL. If he has a big year, a NSW recall is well within his grasp.

One to watch: Michael Lichaa. The Sharks beat a number of clubs to sign the young hooker who is rated as one of the most exciting talents in the game. Loves running the ball, the U20 NSW and Kangaroos representative is tipped to become an NRL regular this year.

Best team: Michael Gordon, Sosaia Feki, Blake Ayshford, Jonathan Wright, Beau Ryan, Todd Carney, Jeff Robson, Sam Tagataese, Michael Lichaa, Andrew Fifita, Luke Lewis, Wade Graham, Paul Gallen. Interchange: Matt Prior, Issac De Gois, Chris Heighington, Anthony Tupou.

Predicted finish: 7th

Betting: $21

AAP