Wade Graham has a scary warning for the rest of the competition, saying Cronulla’s experienced side still have their best football in front of them this season.
The Sharks travel to Brisbane to face the Broncos on Thursday night looking to break their way into the NRL’s top four.
Cronulla are part of the logjam of teams fighting for top four places as well as the minor premiership. Just two points separate top of the table Melbourne and the fifth-placed Sharks with six rounds remaining.
Such is the tightness of the competition a win for Cronulla could see them climb into the top four and, with a relatively friendly run home where they play just two more top eight teams, give themselves an edge going into the finals.
But a loss to the Broncos, who destroyed Penrith last Friday night, could see Cronulla lose touch with the top four and be looking at the near impossible task of winning the competition from the bottom half of the finals.
Graham has been outstanding since his return from a fractured cheekbone against the Panthers a fortnight ago and was equally impressive in the controversial victory over Canberra on Friday night.
But, in keeping with his disrupted season, Graham did not return after half-time after Cronulla’s medical staff decided to err on the side of caution with the representative back-rower suffering tightness in his hamstring.
Graham told the Leader he expected to play against Brisbane.
Many had written off Cronulla’s chance of winning a second premiership in three seasons after a host of injuries and inconsistent form.
But the Sharks are circling and, with Luke Lewis and Josh Dugan still to return, Graham believes Cronulla are peaking at the right time.
“The good thing about being an experienced team is you don’t really pay too much attention to what’s going on on the outside,” he said.
“We’re all just really focused on this group and I don’t think we’ve hit a patch where we played out best footy. I think our best footy is still in front of us. If we can get all our injured blokes back on the park and put a month’s footy together hopefully our best footy is still in front of us.
“We’ll look to keep improving so that come the end of the year we are playing our best footy. And if we put ourselves in a good position we can have a fair crack at [the premiership].
“I think we’ve showed [our best] in glimpses. [Against Canberra] was the perfect example. The first half showed what we can do when we’re on. The second 40 we sort of lost our heads a bit. But I don’t think we’ve put a real 80 minutes [together], maybe the Knights back in mid year.
“We’re always confident if we play well as a team and play to our ability we’re going to give ourselves a really good chance. We’ve got a lot of quality players all across the park.
“[Matt Moylan] is starting to hit his straps. I think Val has been outstanding the last month including Origin and backing up for us has probably been his best footy for us.
“So we’re heading in the right direction we’ve just got to keep going.”
Graham admits it has been a frustrating season personally. A groin problem and suspension saw him spend time off the field through the middle of the year, with the disrupted season costing his NSW jersey.
But while the 27-year-old said he almost put his boots back on in the second half, he was happy to play it safe against the Raiders in order to be fully fit for the back end of the campaign.
“We made that decision to play it safe. We’ve got a big run coming home. It’s better to be good at the back end than now,” he said.
“I felt like I could have kept playing in the second half, it was just the risk factor of doing further damage is always in the back of your mind.
“It’s very frustrating. To be honest I feel good every time I come back. I feel like I’m straight in the rhythm with [Moylan] on my edge. Obviously there’s a little bit of timing missing. I feel in good shape, these little things just keep popping up. I’m hoping all these creases iron out and head into the back end of the year and really have a strong finish.
“We need to win, pretty much. With how the table is we need to keep winning. One loss can drop you three or four spots, one win can jump you three or four spots.
“Brisbane did a bit of a job on Penrith, so Penrith slid down. That’s just how close it is. Three weeks ago they were leading the comp.
“That’s the NRL, that’s why it’s such a good competition. That’s why the fans view it every week because anyone can beat anyone and it’s so close.”