CRONULLA Sharks should have the luxury of choosing from a ‘‘full deck’’ of players for the NRL finals in less than three weeks time.
Buoyed on by a boisterous home crowd, the Sharks all but wrapped up a finals spot for the first time in four seasons when they defeated the third-placed South Sydney at Toyota Stadium on Saturday night.
Now on 29 points, the Sharks can only be ousted from the top eight if they not only lose their final two matches but Brisbane, Wests Tigers and Canberra (all 26 points) all win their final two games...a possible but unlikely scenario given the draw.
While the Sharks tackle Melbourne and the Cowboys, the Broncos face the Sea Eagles and the Raiders meet the Bulldogs this weekend, before Wests Tigers face up to the Storm in round 26.
Some other sides such as new premiership-favourites Manly-Warringah will limp into the finals with some major injuries, but the Sharks finally look set to give coach Shane Flanagan a nice selection headache, with his top 22 players fit and vying for finals selection.
The return of back line players in centre Ben Pomeroy, winger Stewart Mills and fullback Nathan Gardner, along with classy utility Wade Graham, will add plenty of speed to the Sharks line up — at just the right time.
Pomeroy, suffering from osteo pubis the past six weeks, will have a cortisone injection to settle the inflamation down this week in time for next Monday night’s big clash against the Melbourne Storm, in Melbourne.
Gardner, out since round six after major knee surgery, is set to be named in NSW Cup this week after warming up with the Sharks NRL squad prior to the Newcastle match. He could be available for round 26, depending on how he pulls up.
Speedster Mills has had numerous hamstring injury problems the past six weeks but with Wade Graham (sternum), seems certain to play Cup or first grade in the Sharks final home game of the season on Sunday week — a titanic clash against Johnathan Thurston’s North Queensland Cowboys.
Experienced prop Ben Ross is expected to be fit for the Storm game.
The Sharks showed their old commitment in defence against Souths, and it paid off big time.
Their line speed, missing in the previous week’s loss to the Knights, was back big time, with experienced forwards Jeremy Smith, Paul Gallen and Isaac Dde Gois particularly effective, and the others followed suit.
Gallen and Smith reminded their pack that defence would win them most big games. It sunk in, and they rattled the Rabbitohs big men.
‘‘They [team mates] want to play finals football like me, and we have’nt been there in four years,’’ said Gallen, who ran more than 200 metres and with Smith shared 75 tackles.
By the time the Dragons get young Sharks forward Tyson Frizell, their new forward signing for 2013, he will be a well-rounded back rower with finals football experience.
Playing behind back rowers Gallen, Smith, Anthony Tupou, Jayson Bukuya and Wade Graham, Frizell has had limited chances. But he has really thrived in recent weeks and his dynamic attacking display against Souths (including 1 try) shows he’ll get more game time.
Fullback Matt Wright enjoyed easily his best game in attack and defence and with wingers John Williams and Nathan Stapleton, received plenty of praise from coach Flanagan in the way they ran the footy and contended with rival star Greg Inglis — and the high kicks from the likes of Adam Reynolds, John Sutton and Inglis.
‘‘They’re not superstars Matty Wright, Stapo and Johnny Williams … most rugby league supporters would be lucky to know who they are,’’ Flanagan said.
“But they do a really good job and we need those players to stand up, and I was pleased for Johnny to score a try there at the end.’’
In a tight affair Cronulla were trailing 7-6 with 12 minutes remaining after Adam Reynolds potted a field goal. But the Sharks hit back when Frizell steamed onto a Todd Carney cut-out pass to barge over, before Carney slotted a penalty goal and Williams won the race for the final converted try.
Even a possum came out of no-where for the post-try celebrations!
The Cronulla coach said despite the win which almost certainly secures a finals berth, the Sharks wouldn’t be getting ahead of themselves with two games remaining in the regular season against Melbourne and North Queensland.
‘‘I don’t know if it 100 per cent confirms it (finals) but we would be pretty unlucky to miss out but we’re not going to sit back ... we’d like to win those games as well,’’ he said.
Souths coach Michael Maguire paid credit to Cronulla, particularly their forwards.
Meanwhile, sturdily-built goal-kicking winger Nathan Stapleton will stay on with the Sharks in 2013. Stapleton, still only 22, has trained hard to come back from three knee reconstructions — including last year when he received a donor transplant. He joins Matt Wright and John Morris as the latest to agree to terms to have their contracts extended for 2013.