Why rest of 2019 NRL finalists should be wary of lurking Cronulla Sharks

Sharks co-captain Wade Graham tries to shake off Manly's Dylan Walker. Picture: Chris Lane
Sharks co-captain Wade Graham tries to shake off Manly's Dylan Walker. Picture: Chris Lane

You have to go back to 1995 to find a team that have won the premiership after finishing outside the NRL's top four.

It was the Bulldogs that upset minor premiers Manly that year. But it hasn't happened again since.

A number of teams have gone on to win the major-minor premiership double. A number of gun sides have also been bundled out in straight sets. Sure, you can usually read statistics in a certain way to argue just about anything.

That said, if you want to win the competition the statistics are clear - finish in the top four, or you're pretty much making up the numbers.

But if there was ever a team that could overcome that hoodoo, surely it is Cronulla this season.

The Sharks finished seventh on the table after a roller coaster season. It started in December with their salary cap drama and continued into the new year with the resignation of coach Shane Flanagan, which saw rookie coach John Morris handed the reigns.

Morris has done a remarkable job to pilot this team to the finals. Yes, on paper Cronulla's squad is one that should be challenging for the top four and challenging to win premierships. What a roster it is, full of representative experience, premiership winners and exciting next generation stars.

But games aren't played on paper. Morris was parachuted in late in pre-season after Flanagan - a premiership-winning coach liked and respected by his playing group - departed the club.

Morris has had to deal with a long list of injuries to key players. Mercurial fullback Matt Moylan was arguably the hardest hit with recurring hamstring trouble, though New Zealand international Shaun Johnson has also battled a quadriceps injury for much of the campaign. Wade Graham also missed the first half of the season as he returned from knee surgery and missed more football after State of Origin with more injury.

The issue of keeping a settled spine on the park hurt Cronulla's consistency and combinations. They simply haven't had their best, most influential players on the field for long stretches. It is probably the reason why the Sharks have failed to win more than two games in a row all season.

If they are to win a second premiership in four seasons, they will need to win double that amount. Three elimination finals and a grand final.

But unlike other teams around them, including Saturday night's opponents Manly, Cronulla are trending in the right direction at the right time.

Other than Moylan's continued absence and the suspension of young winger Ronaldo Mulitalo, Cronulla have just about their first choice side available as they enter week one of the finals.

That side still includes the names Gallen, Graham, Fifita, Prior, Townsend and Feki from their 2016 premiership-winning team. Add the names Johnson, Dugan, Woods and Morris as well as exciting young stars Xerri, Brailey and Nikora and all of a sudden it is a squad capable of beating anyone on their day.

Now consider this. While Cronulla finished seventh on the NRL table, it could be argued that it was actually a false position.

The Sharks lost five games by two points or less this season. Cronulla lost a further two games by just six points.

Incredibly, Cronulla also lost five games this season despite having scored more tries than their opposition. If you gave them even three of those wins they would have finished in the top four. If you gave them all of them, they would have finished third.

Coach Morris said while he believed Cronulla were a much better side than their seventh-placed finish would suggest, he wanted his side to focus on their strong finish to the season rather than their slow start.

"It's a new competition now. I'm not worried about those games [we should have won]. We just had to do enough to keep our heads above water and make the finals. It's been a real resilient performance," he said.

"We've had some really challenging moments throughout the year. To string five losses in a row together and find a way out of that is a real credit to the boys in sticking tight and believing in each other and our systems. [It has] certainly been frustrating to drop those games.

"[But] I think the focus for us has been I think we've won five of our last seven games. We've really turned a corner, we're a different team than what we were the first half of the year. And the boys have got that bit of confidence and belief about our performance so we'll take confidence out of the back end of the year rather than what went wrong at the start of the year."

If you look at some of their season-long statistics compared to Manly, you realise that Cronulla really weren't far away from having an even better regular season.

While many considered Manly premiership contenders just three weeks ago when they beat the Raiders in Canberra having already beaten the Storm in Melbourne and South Sydney earlier this season, both the Sea Eagles and Cronulla finished with identical +50 for and against records.

The Sharks actually scored 18 more points than Manly. But while the Sea Eagles lost their last two games of the regular season to limp into the finals, Cronulla have won five of their last seven matches.

Manly and Cronulla's completion raters (75 per cent vs 73) and tackle efficiency (87.5 per cent vs 88) are almost identical. Manly's average result this season has been a 20-18 win. Cronulla's average result is a 21-19 win.

"We've wrestled to get that confidence all year. It has just been a bit up and down. We've now got a bit of momentum really. We [went to Leichhardt] with everything against us in such an emotional game for the Tigers. We sneaked under their guard with a really good performance," Morris said.

"I was always confident. We've got enough senior players in this side that they know what the big games are all about. [The Tigers game] was never going to get the better of them. And now we're in with a chance and it's a new competition. No doubt the guys that have been here before will help rally the younger guys. And hopefully we can build a really good performance over at Brookvale."

If Cronulla do break their Brookvale hoodoo on Saturday night, they would enter week two of the finals with even more momentum, confidence and belief against a team coming off a defeat against a top four side.

Manly under Des Hasler were the kings of "flying under the radar" as the legendary Sea Eagles coach used to say. It's essentially how Hasler got them to three grand finals and won two premierships.

But if there is a team that can take advantage of being written off - and perhaps stealthily lurking just under the surface of the water - it just might be the Sharks in 2019.