It’s been an enjoyable year so far for anyone with Black, White and Blue in their blood. I’ve been asked quite a few times for a comment or opinion on how the Sharkies are travelling and it’s been different and enjoyable being able to sit back and witness the supporters, who I consider the most resilient and loyal in the game, experience win after win.
First things first, we’ve been here before. The club in its entirety must stop and smell the roses and acknowledge the wins and the fantastic record streak the lads are on. In ’73 and ‘78, ’88 and ’89, and all of Johnny Lang’s years, strong Sharks squads challenged and looked likely for titles but fell short, three times at the final hurdle in Grand Finals and some heartbreak in the GF qualifiers.
It’s important as a club that the context of this season’s amazing performance to date is not lost. We all know the dramas the club has faced over the years and to see the on-field performances turn around to match the financial and front office turnaround since 2009 is truly remarkable, and allows any Cronulla Sutherland supporter to dream again.
Whether this season is the one, the elusive premiership, will depend on many variables. Knowing coach Shane Flanagan as well as I do I am certain his focus will be on systems, preparation, consistency and detail. The difference Andrew Gray has made in conditioning and injury prevention is incredible and his contribution must be credited with the small number of players Shane has had to call upon this season. I was dubious as to whether the club had chosen the right guy when Andrew was appointed, but I was very wrong, he has been outstanding.
What is happening right now regardless of the finals will benefit the club for years. An entirely new generation of Sharks fans are seeing their team perform as an elite NRL side, playing with belief and confidence, fielding players in their break-out seasons in a wonderfully balanced squad containing rep stars young and old and plenty of “character” players who the marketers love having around and the kids aspire to follow.
The reasons for the success this season are many, however Shane Flanagan’s recruitment and ability to attract players to the club is one of the main ones. I knew Shane was well regarding among players in the NRL, not just at Sharks, when I chose him to step straight into Ricky Stuart’s shoes. We’d seen him communicate with rep players during Origin series and I kept an interested eye on his relationships with players from other clubs when we played away or those players visited Shark Park. It was clear he was respected by players who, if we were honest, were at another level compared to the majority of our squad at the time. Shane is an intense coach, the by-product of his many years as assistant to Ricky Stuart. That intensity has cost the club at times during Shane’s early years as head coach but there is no more focused or determined coach in the game and Shane would be first to recognise his past errors. This season he has a steadiness about him that can only be good for the team’s chances come finals time.
Paul Gallen is a much maligned figure in the game, however his performance last weekend spoke volumes about his maturity as a player. With Mick Ennis, James Maloney, Luke Lewis and Ben Barba around him, Gallen is playing with a contentment and a simple focus that the club has been needing for many seasons. We are seeing Paul Gallen playing as a prop again, the position that delivered his finest ever State of Origin performance, perhaps one of the games best ever. We are seeing Paul comfortable within his role and playing the ball at or through the advantage line rather than before it, which he tended to do when lacking confidence in the ability of his halves and fullbacks to create points. Word from the club is that Paul is “just” a very very good player again, rather than the man who felt he needed to be captain, ball player, spokesman and team activities manager. The team, club and supporters are the ones reaping the rewards. Yes, Paul Gallen deserves to win a grand final, hell, he deserves to just play in one. Like many before him he is not entitled to that honour though, but he is doing everything right this season to give himself the best chance to achieve that holy grail and good luck to him.
One of the Sharks great sons Mat Rogers once said that sometimes the Cronulla Club were too nice. Matty referenced the supportive cheers and “well dones” the squad would receive on returning to the leagues club after a loss, and wonder whether or not it may have been better for supporters to be a little colder and firmer in their expectations of what was a very strong squad. I do think there is something in that, and whilst he got it horribly wrong, it is what Chris Anderson tried to change during his volatile tenure as coach – something Chris achieved as I don’t think anyone has ever been howled off stage as often as Chris was at after match presentations!
As a result of so many things out of their control, Cronulla fans un-yielding support and loyalty has been tested to a point few, if any other clubs in world sport have experienced over the years. Known for their resilience and sincerity of support, even the most stoically loyal Sharks were tempted to toss it all in when, after finally achieving the 40 year dream of financial strength and security, and a strong off-season which saw their team head into early 2013 as one of the bookies favorites to win the title, they were dealt another shocking blow when the ASADA revelations came to light. The wind had again been knocked out of the club with the off-field successes of 2012 and the promising signs on-field for the season only heightening the hurt and despair. Only four years before the team looked likely to feature deep into the finals until Greg Bird was stood down, Brett Seymour was injured and a salary cap-fuelled Melbourne Storm put paid to the fans dreams yet again.
The result of 2013/2014 was a hardening of the Cronulla Sharks community as a whole. Supporters and sponsors just want to get on with it and see the team play footy. Good footy. The dark clouds of financial instability have been removed for good, the ASADA penalties have been served, and coach Flanagan has a team loaded with rep players, experience, young stars and confidence. The resilience of the past has paid off and the club has all that it needs, the fans are happy to get along and cheer and watch the lads deliver.
Sharks fans, get to the games, fill stadiums come finals time, buy a new jersey and a flag or two, dress up your cars and fill your shop windows with Black, White and Blue. This ride is what it is all about, not the ending. Whatever happens come finals time will happen. If we focus on the finals we miss the view on the way there, and having experienced lean years the best thing we can do is fill the Sharks world with positive, fun and supportive vibes and enjoy that view at every match leading to the finals.
There has been talk about the club wanting a home semi-final. Well we know the rules, the rules are that it will be played at a major stadium in Sydney. Home semi-finals have generally been a very happy hunting ground for the club over the years, but let’s be honest, our Waterloos have been met at the big shows, the major semi-finals and GF qualifiers at the SFS or Homebush (even QE II in Brisbane). Forget agitating for a home semi, I say get into the big stadia in a flood of Black, White and Blue and get some early dominance in the finals series in that environment. Sharks fans will travel and they will be loud. Move into the big stadia for the series, as the form side, possibly minor premiers. Headline status has been earned so go in there and take it. No other Sydney side is worthy this season so walk out onto the turf of the big stadiums and perform like the team you are, the team that belongs there, because you do.
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