Ladder position: 5th
Points for: 476
Points against: 407
Top try scorer: Sosaia Feki (13 tries)
Home record: 5-7
Away record: 10-2
In a season succeeding a 49-year drought-breaking Premiership, the volume was turned down on most of the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks’ achievements, especially given their ignominious finals exit.
So superfluous was the clubs’ first ever Premiership defence, Paul Gallen’s 300th game in round 23 qualifies as the highlight of a season ended earlier than it should have and even that was shrouded by a 32-10 defeat to Brisbane.
The Sharks became the first fifth-seeded team in the post-McIntyre System era to lose to their eight-seeded opponents, falling at the hands of the Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott-less North Queensland Cowboys.
Whatever dignity remained post-loss was hastily done away with by coach Shane Flanagan, who embarked on a tirade against the referees, despite back-to-back gaffes by Gallen and Andrew Fifita sealing the team’s fate.
What went right?
Despite the tone set by this review, most of the season went to plan. They won the games they should have, with only two of their nine losses coming by more than 20 points, and a stunning 10-2 record on the road.
The Sharks also debuted two players in 2017, with great effectiveness, but more on that later.
What went wrong?
The finals – or perhaps that word should not be pluralised. Unfortunately, the Sharks ran into a highly motivated Cowboys outfit in the qualifying final, who defended like their lives depended on it and stifled their opposition’s attack.
Given the closeness of the top eight, they may not have ran into North Queensland had they been more ruthless at home. A 5-7 record at Endeavour Field was strangely off-key for such a traditionally team at home.
Fifita was the best of a very strong bunch this year. On top of his game for Australia in the ANZAC Test and his game one State of Origin heroics, Fifita was consistently the standout for the defending Premiers.
Others who impressed included Valentine Holmes, James Maloney, Wade Graham, Jack Bird, and Gallen but Fifita was constantly the club’s most influential forward in offloading, breaking tackles and making metres.
With only two rookies making their debut this year, and one doing so in the last round, this was a fairly easy selection. However, Jayden Brailey not only stood out for the Sharks, he stood out among all hookers.
Brailey has long been earmarked as a future New South Wales rake and he almost got his State of Origin chance this year.
A genuine three-tool player, the 20-year-old local junior impressed with his run and pass this year, and was incredible in defence given his age and experience, topped only by his captain in the club’s tackle count for 2017.
His kicking game will need to improve if he is to keep pace with the modernity of his colleagues but the almost seamless departure of the influential Michael Ennis is a testament to the young man, who earned plenty of credit from his coach.
“We’ve seen in his games he’s got a real good temperament,” said Flanagan. “He sticks to plans and handles pressure. That’s all about character and they like that.
“All the players were probably wondering in the off-season how we were going to fill the void of Ennis and it was probably a bit of a concern for them.
“Now they’re gravitating to him. They love his qualities. He’s a level-headed kid and a really good trainer.”
Recruitment for 2018
2018 gains: Josh Dugan (St. George-Illawarra Dragons), Aaron Gray (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Ava Seumanufagai (Wests Tigers)
2018 losses: Gerard Beale (New Zealand Warriors), Jack Bird (Brisbane Broncos), Fa’amanu Brown (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs), Manaia Cherrington (Warriors), Jordan Drew (released), Daniel Mortimer (Leigh Centurions)
There is plenty of talent heading both in and out of the Sharks next season. Josh Dugan is by far the club’s biggest acquisition and will replace some of the gusto lost with the departure of Bird, albeit without the same utility value.
Aaron Gray and Ava Seumanufagai are also handy additions who are likely to compete for starting positions in the side.
Bird highlights the exiting group, and is doubtlessly a big loss for the Sharks. He is young, talented, versatile, and was looked to as a future leader at Southern Cross Group Stadium.
Gerard Beale stands out among the rest of the leavers, although the Sharks will be fine with saving some money to replace him with a younger, cheaper talent.
Much like many NRL fans, the Sharks will be doing plenty of soul-searching as they nurse their hangovers post Mad Monday.
The off-season will be about overcoming and accepting a heartbreaking finals exit – the kind every club needs to build character, even if it came after a Premiership for this group.
However, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and the Sharks will return with almost every key player from their Premiership year, and have already found replacements for Ennis and Bird.
The one detail on the Sharks mind this off-season will be how many gallons their skipper has left in the tank alongside cult hero Luke Lewis.
But their strong recruitment so far could make for another exciting year in 2018 and another charge for the top four at the very least.
What were your highlights and lowlights from the Sharks 2017 NRL season? Let us know in the comments below.
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