Wade Graham returned to Cronulla training on Monday to something that excited him.
The Sharks were in the middle of a field session when 2016 premiership-winning halfback Chad Townsend passed the ball to new signing Shaun Johnson.
The New Zealand international then moved it on to Matt Moylan.
With representative stars Andrew Fifita, Josh Dugan, Aaron Woods and Matt Prior all on the training track – along with veteran captain Paul Gallen – it showed Graham that, despite the turbulent off-season Cronulla had endured, the Sharks were still ready to hunt a second premiership in four seasons in 2019.
Cronulla announced on Tuesday that Graham had extended his contract with the Sharks for a further three seasons, with the deal to take the premiership-winning back-rowers’ stay in the shire well past a decade to 2022.
“I’ve been here a long time, I've been at the club when we've been in some bad places and the best place of all [with the 2016 grand final win],'' Graham said.
“The belief in this club and playing group are the biggest reason why I re-signed.
“The playing group we have here at the moment, I'm really confident if we can put it together on the field, we have the ability to contend over the next three or four years.
“I came back Monday, walked on the field and watched 'Chaddy' [Chad Townsend] pass to Shaun Johnson who passed to Matty Moylan, and I was excited but envious and disappointed because I was in the gym and couldn't be out there with them. Throw in Andrew Fifita, Aaron Woods, Matt Prior, Josh Dugan ... it's there for us if we're good enough.”
Graham is likely to replace Gallen as Cronulla captain when the Sharks legend eventually retires. He is settled in the shire with his young family and was keen to commit to the club despite serious interest from several other NRL clubs.
Graham joined the Sharks from Penrith in 2011, then as a 20-year-old five-eighth.
He has since gone on to play 177 times in the black, white and blue including the 2016 grand final win over Melbourne.
Graham suffered an injury-plagued 2018 season which culminated in a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament in his knee during Cronulla’s finals loss to eventual premiers the Roosters in September.
Graham is expected to be back on the field for the Sharks before the midway point of the 2019 season and is continuing his rehabilitation.
Graham’s return can’t come soon enough for a Cronulla side that has suffered a tumultuous off-season.
Valentine Holmes, the NRL’s next superstar and the player the Sharks had hoped to build their club around for the next decade, rejected the largest ever contract offered by the club to chase a career in the NFL after obtaining a release from the final year of his Sharks deal.
Coach Shane Flanagan was deregistered and the Sharks were fined $800,000 by the NRL last month after the governing body found he had breached the terms of his 12-month suspension in 2014 with his communications with the club that year.
John Morris, who was an assistant coach under Flanagan, has since been named interim coach while Flanagan prepares a response to the claims against him. Flanagan has until the end of January to lodge his submission.
Then, two days after Flanagan’s indefinite suspension, Sharks players were allegedly involved in an incident that led to the club’s entire squad being banned from Cronulla Sailing Club.
The blacklisting comes after an altercation on the night of December 21 in which a series of scuffles are understood to have broken out across the venue involving lower-grade players, prompting police to be called.
But Graham said there was cause for optimism from the playing squad and the club’s fans that 2019 could again be Cronulla’s year, potentially under a hungry, young head coach in Morris.
Cronulla start their 2019 NRL campaign in Newcastle against the Knights on March 15.