While you could forgive Cronulla fans for thinking nothing could better the club’s amazing 2016 season, Sharks coach Shane Flanagan believes the Cronulla Sharks’ best years are ahead of them.
Cronulla have celebrated winning their first NRL club championship since 1995 thanks to the success of their first grade and under-20s sides this season.
The Sharks first grade team, who face the Knights in Newcastle on Sunday in their final match of the regular season, have qualified for the finals for the fifth time in the last six years. While Cronulla’s exciting Holden Cup team were crowned minor premiers with three games to spare.
The John Morris-coached under-20s have lit up the National Youth Competition this season, breaking a host of records as they enter the finals as strong title favourites. And, despite first grade slipping out of the top four, there is still the possibility of a premiership double landing in the shire this season.
Flanagan said the recent success of the club proved they were on the right track. The coach and his staff have worked on bringing through their best juniors while building a strong NRL team for a number of years. Much time and effort has gone into recruitment, retention and nurturing of players. Then there was the effort to get their best young players through the club’s pathway system.
The evidence of this can be seen in the number of graduates from Cronulla’s 2015 national championship-winning sides. It was two years ago that the Sharks won the under-16s Harold Matthews and under-18s SG Ball grand finals before winning national titles against the Townsville Stingers in both grades.
A number of those players including Jack Williams, Billy Magoulias, first grade hooker Jayden Brailey’s younger brother, Blayke, Daniel Vasquez, Jesse Savage and Flanagan’s son, Kyle, have graduated to the under-20s side. And Flanagan senior believes a number have the ability to go further.
“I reckon I’ve got eight to 10 players who will be full time with the NRL squad next year at some level,” Flanagan told the Leader.
“There’s definitely some first graders there. The next 12 months is crucial for their development. You might see five or six in first grade at some stage next year.
“Some of those boys have been together since before those national championships. I’ve watched them come through the last few years and it’s really two or three age groups coming together. I can tell you, I get no more pleasure than to see local juniors make their [first grade] debut. From a head coaching point of view seeing kids come through the system and play first grade, nothing gives me more joy.”
Flanagan believes the club have the foundations in place for continued success.
“You look at the platforms we’ve laid. The academies, the pathways for juniors, the good coaches, the training facilities. We didn’t have them four years ago,” he said.
“They’re all in place now. It’s not a given that players keep coming through. We have to continue to work really hard, challenging yourself and your staff and all the players.
“I want kids to want to play NRL for the Sharks. A lot of those boys it’s all they know, playing for the Sharks. You want more players like Jayden [Brailey]. All he wants to do is play first grade for the Sharks.
“The more of those type of kids you’ve got the stronger club you’ll have because they’re one of your own.”
There is a drive at Cronulla to be the best and most successful club in Australia. There has been a change of culture at the club in recent years geared towards professionalism, driven by Flanagan and CEO Lyall Gorman.
Since the dark days of the crippling ASADA investigation in 2013, Cronulla have won under-16s and 18s national championships, their maiden first grade premiership and the NRL club championship three years in a row. Flanagan’s quest to change the club’s culture appears to be on the right track.
“You look at the staff, the football staff, the admin, the CEO, they’re all professional. We’ve got the drive to be not just the best footy club, and I don’t know we are there yet, but we’re trying to be that from top to bottom,” Flanagan said.
“The culture of the club has changed, especially the way the [under-] 20s have gone and what happened to [first grade] last year. Winning helps. That winning culture and professionalism has changed over the years.
“We’re close to where we want to be but we’re not going to stop trying to be better.”