The view from the front office: Keep the faith

I know only too well what the hordes of incredible Sharks supporters are experiencing this week in the lead up to the grand final qualifier against the Cowboys.

Despite Cronulla’s lack of a premiership trophy, many casual rugby league fans might be surprised to know their finals history and experience stacks up well against the relatively young Cowboys Club. The Sharks are remembered for the heroics of 1973 and 1978 grand finals as a young club up against the might of NSWRL powerbrokers Manly, questionable refereeing from Greg Hartley, and the sting of Bob Fulton at his best. What is less widely remembered however is the brilliant season of 1988 – a minor premiership cruelly ending with a shoulder injury to the equally brilliant Barry Russell in the semi finals just short of the grand final.

1999 saw one of the most celebrated Sharks sides of modern times lead St George 8-0 at half-time before Mundine, Blacklock, and Jamie Ainscough’s Terry Lamb job on Mat Rogers saw the season end in tears losing 24-8 in a second half blitz. We’ve been here before, in this week, leading into a grand final qualifier with hope and dreams fairly boiling in our blood 24/7. In 2001 the Knights stole our ticket to the big dance before a punctured Paul Mellor lung and a torn Dave Peachey hamstring allowed the Warriors to run us down in the pre-dinner drinks party at ANZ Stadium in 2002.

The pain is real and the pain is immense to fall at the final hurdle for a generation of Sharks supporters who haven’t seen their lads in the grand final. Most recently a season full of promise was halted by an overpaid Storm side who did very well playing such good footy, whilst worrying about where to park their new boats and cars. A tearful Luke Covell burned into the minds of loyal Sharks supporters who shared his grief.

So this Friday the Mighties meet the Cowboys, ironically led by a Sharks favourite who was so much a part of one of our better eras: Mr Paul Green. The Cowboys too have had their fair share of heartbreak at this point of seasons past, losing in 2004 to the Roosters and to Manly in 2007. The difference being they have succeeded at the grand final qualifier stage relatively recently in 2005, where they were beaten in the drand dinal by the Wests Tigers ,only to finally succeed in 2015 in one of the greatest deciders of all time.

So what does this tell us about Fridays game?

I’d like to provide a stat or trend that shows why or how it is Cronulla’s time to play in a grand final this season. The fact is, very little has changed since my last column on their season when the team was riding high on a record winning streak into the final quarter of the regular season. The past doesn’t matter this Friday night and the less nostalgia and emotion applied to the team’s week and preparations the better. I say this because many of the things that saw Shane Flanagans men shoot to a record breaking run this year drifted away a little towards the regular season’s end, and the focus needs to purely be around bringing them back and focusing on their own game. If they do that they win this Friday.

What little things?

Discipline for one. Our 2013 finals series was cruelled by a stupid penalty given away by number 9 John Morris after the ball was played and whilst Paul Gallen was diving over for the match-winner. Without doubt Mick Ennis has been the club’s spark this season and his form has been immense. A few niggly penalties and frustrated acts of petulance have crept in over the past month and others who need no encouraging such as Andrew Fifita have followed suit. Make no mistake, the Cowboys will niggle and push every button they can to get a rise this Friday night, internal focus is paramount.

Paul Gallen‘s fitness. He’s been one of the comps’ form forwards this season. Rugby League rarely issues fairy tale endings and one of the cruellest blows has been this late season injury to Paul Gallen. A year where he played some of his best and most effective football for his club deserves a better ending and the side has missed his leg speed and dominance of the advantage line with every carry. Replacement forwards not carrying the same low power and body shape have struggled to have the same impact, especially at the business end of the field coming out of trouble. Matt Prior has been incredible this year and needs some help this Friday to turn the last month’s form around.

During the form run, the Sharks seemed so confident in their ability to win from any adverse position. I’ve noticed over the past month that frustration over ref decisions and losing the 50/50 calls has crept back into their body language and approach on the field. They just need to rely on themselves and each other this Friday and go back to their strengths.

Stats can be very telling. Val Holmes leads the club in tries and line breaks for the season and was in great form during the streak. He hasn’t seen much ball in recent matches. He is young and needs to be nurtured into the game this Friday. Some early touches and a line break or two this would help the sides chances immensely.

On the flip side, Ben Barba has really come into the season nicely and is knocking on the door for a massive match, it can be this Friday and it can be very real. Look out, it’s no fluke that he is leading the try assist tally and he will be crucial.

There is a huge question around Chad Townsend‘s role given he was hooked in Canberra by coach Flanagan. Chad is a quintessential Cronulla Sharks player, from Yarrawarra in Engadine he reminds me of great clubman Mitch Healey. In previous years his public axing during the Raiders semi-final might have cruelled his confidence and any prospect of a positive contribution this Friday, however ,looking through the team sheet at names such as Lewis, Ennis, Barba, Heighinton, Gallen, Maloney and Prior should give Sharks fans plenty of confidence in terms of experience in big games and their ability to lift and protect their little halfback. He has a huge motor and I’ve seen him kick some extremely tough clutch conversions over the years that may well be crucial should Maloney be unavailable for any reason.

There has been plenty of talk about the tough semi-final the Cowboys had in their epic clash against the Broncos. That’s right, but do not underestimate the effort the Sharks put in and had to deliver down in Canberra. The week off was critical and the Friday night scheduling will also work in the Sharks favour. The Cowboys are a tough and resilient side and are a mirror of their star Jonathan Thurston in terms of putting their bodies about and rising above brutal advantage line contests when it matters, but they are human and the Sharks must take the physicality up another level and look to bully the Cowboys from the first minute.

This will be the most intense match the Sharks have played in recent memory and whilst that will suit the intense quality of players such as Mick Ennis, Paul Gallen, Wade Graham, Andrew Fifita and Jack Bird, I can’t help but feel the outcome will depend on how disciplined those stars can be after the missiles have been launched and returned in minutes 1-20 and 41-60. High intensity players keep going until they fatigue beyond the point of knowing when to stop. 

Jake Granville is in dashing form at dummy half for the Cowboys and will be dangerous on repeat sets and going direct to tired markers. Thurston’s most well highlighted danger in video sessions is when he nips into dummy half following a damaging hit up that bends the advantage line, catching the defence out with only one marker or on the back foot getting onside. Taumalolo is the one to set this up and the Sharks backrow and bench will need to work overtime to protect Chad Townsend and Jack Bird on what has been their flimsiest edge most of the season.

I feel the Sharks can take the advantage on the edges with a superior deck of cards in the back-row. Coach Flanagan has named 18 however I would like to see Gerard Beale drop off that list – there’s no place for a back on the bench in these big games – leaving a strong bench of Buyuka, Heighington, Capewell and Tagatese. Combined with the best back-row in the league of Lewis, Graham and Gallen, I see the difference between the two teams right here. Chock full of experience, outright talent and immense competitiveness, you know these lads will be firing for the entire 80 minutes and they are an imposing proposition.

Flanagan must use Paul Gallen as a bonus this Friday. The nature of his back injury is concerning given it can flare up at any time and being a lower back issue can often lead to hamstring and groin strains due to compensation. Let Gallen go, tight to the ruck and into the advantage line without thinking about ball playing or offloading. As long as he stands he will book up superhuman stats in terms of carries and yardage and that contribution alone I believe can prove the difference at the back end of each half for his superior back-rowers and Maloney to unlock the gate and put Val Holmes, Sosei Feki, and Ben Barba away for the match winning points.

Some of the greatest occasions for the Sharks club have been at the SFS in massive matches against out of town teams and this Friday will be the best of them all. The fan base is large, genuine, and massively motivated to support their team. Every bus and coach in Sydney will be lining up over Captain Cook Bridge towards Moore Park and floods of supporters will be walking up from the city and Central station full of expectation. Many of those attending will know most of the other faces and will have been here before. The difference this year is that for the first time, the squad is fit, the ball is bouncing the right way, and the squad have the confidence of having been dominant for such long periods of the season. Up Up Cronulla!

Predictions:

Cronulla Sharks 23
Cowboys 18

First Try Scorer: Jack Bird

Man of Match: Ben Barba

Crowd: Going suitably nuts

Damian Irvine is the fomer chairman of NRL club Cronulla Sharks and achieved the ‘impossible” by saving them financially and leaving the club as one of Sydney’s richest. Now in Football, the Australian was named Best Marketer in UK Football in 2014 while at Notts County and is the UK’s leading rugby league consultant to chairmen, commercial managers and CEOs. Irvine currently works as Head of Commerical Activities at Wycombe Wanderers and can be found on Twitter at @damianirvine

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