Summer of change puts Sharks on course

With the ASADA investigation now in their rear-view mirror, the new-look Cronulla Sharks are dreaming of a charge up the NRL ladder in 2015.

There are bad seasons and then there's Cronulla's 2014.

The debilitating ASADA investigation, the ignominy of Todd Carney's infamous bubbler incident and an injury list the length of an electoral roll combined to decimate the Sharks and plunge their long-suffering fans further into depression.

But coach Shane Flanagan, back from his 12-month ban over the club's supplements scandal, says the off-season was a "summer of change" for the Sharks - and there's already some evidence to suggest they could vault from wooden spooners to genuine premiership contenters this year.

Their swag of new recruits, headed by Ben Barba, Michael Ennis and Gerard Beale, hold the key and the coach says their presence has already had a big influence.

"Sometimes you get a bit lucky," Flanagan said.

"When I walked into the place on November 1, a lot of the new players came into the club ... they've been around to other clubs, successful clubs, like the Dragons, the Broncos, the Bulldogs.

"You wouldn't have known the team had just got the wooden spoon.

"We don't talk about it. Obviously we've got to deal with it but we've got to move on and make sure it never happens again."

So far, so good.

Aided by new assistant Steve Price, Flanagan has aimed to set high standards from the moment he returned to work.

"There was a lot to fix up but we started fresh, we jumped really high from day one," he said.

"We didn't come in and try to take baby steps.

"We know how a professional rugby league club is supposed to operate and that's how we operated from November 1.

"The players have had a lot of quality training during that period. I've had almost all my squad training, no surgeries - not any major ones.

"I'm really happy with how we ended up. On paper we look really good, we've just got to make sure now that we prepare properly."

The public's first glimpse of Cronulla's new era was at the Auckland Nines, where the Sharks went agonisingly close to finding company for their 1979 AMCO Cup trophy - the only piece of silverware in the club's history.

With most of their big names absent, the Sharks surged past the Warriors and Sydney Roosters before narrowly falling to South Sydney in the pre-season tournament's final.

"We had a bit of attitude about us," Flanagan said.

"We wanted to go out there and show people things were changing.

"We didn't set any targets that we wanted to win all our games or play in the semi-final. We just wanted to show people we're serious about this.

"They were unreal. A kick, a bounce of a ball, an error here or there - that was the only difference."

Add in Barba, Gallen, Ennis and a fit-again Andrew Fifita, and Cronulla begin to take on an ominous look.

Fifita was on top of the rugby league world two years ago.

But he crashed hard in 2014, a season wrecked by injuries and his ugly contract saga with Canterbury.

"I think he's got a point to prove," Flanagan said.

"He's probably as fit as he's ever been. He's got a super motor, he could play 80 minutes if he had to.

"He's had some issues over the last 12 months but hopefully they're all behind him now and he can concentrate on his footy."


Premierships: 0

Finishes over the past three seasons: 2014 - 16th, 2013 - 5th, 2012 - 7th

Coach: Shane Flanagan

Captain: Paul Gallen

Gains: Ben Barba (Broncos), Gerard Beale (Dragons), Jack Bird (Dragons), Mitch Brown (Bulldogs), Jayson Bukuya (Warriors), Michael Ennis (Bulldogs), Saulala Houma (Roosters), Todd Murphy (Norths Devils), Sami Sauiluma (Raiders), Kyle Stanley (Dragons)

Losses: Todd Carney (Catalan Dragons), Isaac De Gois (Eels), Bryce Gibbs (retired), Michael Lichaa (Bulldogs), Sione Masima (Rabbitohs), Mark Mexico (Gateshead Thunder), John Morris (retired), Beau Ryan (retired), Tupou Sopoaga (Panthers), Nathan Stapleton (Roosters), Siosaia Vave (Sea Eagles), Jonathan Wright (Warriors)

Strength: The Sharks have always had a formidable pack but it has been significantly bolstered by the arrival of hooker Michael Ennis.

Weakness: Attack. Cronulla struggled badly for points in 2014, and need to significantly rework their efforts with the ball this year if they are to be a finals threat.

Money Man: Cronulla will structure their game to get the best out of new playmaker Ben Barba, whose off-season thus far suggests he is close to rediscovering his mojo.

One to watch: Andrew Fifita will want to prove he's not a one-season wonder after going backwards last year.

Best team: Michael Gordon, Sosaia Feki, Gerard Beale, Ricky Leutele, Valentine Holmes, Ben Barba, Jeff Robson, Andrew Fifita, Michael Ennis, Sam Tagataese, Luke Lewis, Wade Graham, Paul Gallen. Interchange: Chris Heighington, Jayson Bukuya, Tinirau Arona, Jack Bird.

Predicted finish: 10th

Betting: $17

Source AAP

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