Cronulla could be without 997 games of NRL experience for their crucial clash with Penrith on Sunday.
Injury decimated Cronulla’s forward pack in their loss to St George Illawarra on Friday night, leaving coach Shane Flanagan with a number of potential selection headaches to face the Panthers at Southern Cross Group Stadium.
Captain Paul Gallen will miss four to six weeks with a torn medial ligament in his knee, while Wade Graham is expected to be out for at least a fortnight with a hamstring strain.
Andrew Fifita was initially believed to be out for the season with an ACL tear but has since been diagnosed with bone bruising and severe swelling of his knee and could miss as little as one week. Luke Lewis copped a cork to his knee and will have a race against the clock to prove his fitness to face his former club.
Flanagan told the Leader he was relieved after fearing the worst over the weekend. But he still has the difficult task of picking a team to replace four of his most experienced forwards, with Matt Prior and Jayden Brailey likely to be the only survivors from the Dragons loss.
That leaves Flanagan needing three back-rowers and a prop with Joseph Paulo, Ava Seumanufagai and Kurt Capewell in the mix, with Scott Sorensen and Jack Williams also possibilities.
Young prop Kurt Dillon made his NRL debut against the Dragons and could come off the bench again. Braden Uele will also be a chance, with James Segeyaro and Jayson Bukuya possibilities to return from concussion and a groin injury respectively.
The Sharks will also need to name a new captain with Chad Townsend, Prior and Bukuya the likely candidates.
“Not a good weekend for us. We had only one left on the bench there and in the last five or 10 minutes I had none left on the bench,” Flanagan told NRL 360.
“You’ve got to go through these things. Touch wood we’ve been pretty lucky over the last couple of years. But Fifita was good news that he hasn’t done his ACL. He’ll be back, maybe not this week. The other boys Gal is probably the longest out for four or six weeks. The others are between one and four. So it’s not as bad as first thought.”
You’ve got to go through these things. Touch wood we’ve been pretty lucky over the last couple of years.Shane Flanagan
The Sharks need to arrest a worrying form slump having lost four of their opening six matches to sit in 13th place on the NRL table.
They will also welcome their 2016 premiership-winning five-eighth James Maloney back to the shire for the first time with Penrith, having headed to the Panthers as the Sharks acquired Matt Moylan.
Flanagan said he was confident Cronulla were close to regaining their form despite their injury woes.
“We’ve been close. We’ve tinkered around the edges in different parts of the game. We had a good day [on Monday] and the players addressed what we need to do. It’s easy to address it but then go out and do it,” he said.
“We’ve spoken about it for a couple of weeks [but] there comes a time and it’s starting to come that where if we continue to lose at this stage of the year it makes it so hard at the end of the year. So we need to put some wins in the bank.”