Most of the talk around Cronulla’s strengths involves their experience.
It has done for a number of years. Their big-game, representative players. Their war horses. Their been there, done that players.
Gallen, Lewis, Graham, Fifita, Dugan, Moylan, Woods, Prior. That list goes on and on.
But it is one of the youngest members of Cronulla’s team that has taken the biggest leaps in his development this season.
Their baby Shark, Jayden Brailey.
When you speak to Brailey it doesn’t take long to understand he has a very wise, down to earth, sensible head on his 22-year-old shoulders.
Having grown up in the shire, the Aquinas Colts junior is a wonderful example of not allowing set backs to stop someone from pursuing their dream.
It was in 2016, the year Cronulla won their maiden premiership, that Brailey was overlooked for the NSW under-20s side.
Rather than sulk or lose faith or confidence in his ability, Brailey used it to drive him. As his motivation.
He was so good that season he was named the Dally M Holden Cup under-20s player of the year. He was then so good in pre-season that Sharks coach Shane Flanagan threw him in at the deep end in to start the 2017 season in first grade, straight out of under-20s football.
Despite the appearance of a wise head there are still elements of Brailey’s personality that keep him young. His captain Paul Gallen alleges Brailey is known to strut around the Sharks gym rapping Eminem songs, a charge the young hooker strenuously denies.
Then there is the youthful enthusiasm with how he describes simply playing footy. It is an attitude some of the more cynical in rugby league could do with rubbing off on them. Brailey’s love of the game is infectious.
“It’s hard to put your finger on what it is [about finals football]. It’s just the change in intensity, I guess. It’s hard to explain. The nerves, everything that goes on beforehand. I was just so excited and so amped up all week last week leading up to that game.
“As soon as I got out there and I saw the crowed I was like, oh my god, this is just crazy. Especially against the Roosters, they’re one of the favourites to win the comp.”
Brailey has played less minutes than in his debut season. He took on a new role late on in the season, which allowed Flanagan to utilise James Segeyaro more off the bench.
Rather than be deflated about enjoying less playing time, Brailey is upbeat. He even thinks it has helped parts of his game.
“It’s sort of a weird feeling to be honest. Last year I was getting some more minutes. More so probably than this year. But in saying that I feel like in the limited time that I’ve had especially over the last four to six weeks I feel like I’ve produced some pretty good attack and created some opportunities for us,” he said.
“And defensively I feel it’s probably the best I’ve defended in the NRL so far. So my confidence is definitely up. And whether I’m playing 30 minutes or 60 minutes I’m always fresh and willing to get the job done. I’m still not where I want to be probably and there’s still a lot more things I can bring to my game looking forward.
“I think in that middle part of the season Chico started playing some really good football for us. And maybe that’s what we needed to take the pressure off Chad [Townsend] and [Matt Moylan]. Because everyone knows we’re different styles of hookers.
“But in saying that it doesn’t bother me to be honest, especially this time of year. I just want to win football games. I feel like I have taken some steps forward this year but obviously want to take some bigger ones next year.”
Cronulla’s do or die elimination semi-final with Penrith on Friday night will see Sharks premiership-winning five-eighth James Maloney take on his former club.
Brailey played with Maloney in 2017, giving the youngster the opportunity to learn from a wily veteran.
“The biggest thing I probably took from him was he was very calm under pressure. When things got really tough he made a joke out of the situation or made everything pretty lighthearted but he still executed,” he said.
“He used to always talk rubbish where he’d say things like ‘wherever I go I win a comp’. Or ‘I was at Warriors, what happened? Grand final. Roosters, grand final. Sharks, grand final.’ He just kept saying it all the time. That’s just the way he is, he’s just funny. He’s always at you, just relentless.
“When things are high pressure he can make you drop your shoulders a little bit, make you calm down a little bit. But when things got tough out on the footy field he’d stand up and produce the play. And he’s been doing that all year for Penrith.”
Cronulla were far from disappointed with their performance against the Roosters last weekend. On another day, they would have taken the two or three golden opportunities to score tries and won the game.
Instead of panicking, the Sharks realise the loss simply means they have to take a different road. But the destination remains the same.
“We pretty much went out there and executed our game plan in terms of our effort, the little one per centers that we spoke about during the week,” Brailey said.
“It was just a couple of those little chances we should have nailed and got two or three more tries on the board and we would have been in better shape.
“But there was no disappointment at all. We said the other day in video after a loss it was pretty positive if anything.
“Going into Friday night, I know we’ll be backing up after a really tough game but if we reproduce that effort I think we’ll learn from our mistakes and get a good win.”