By Martin Gabor (@MartinJGabor, NRL.com)
The NRL season started with a simple message: Be there when history happens.
And on that front, the Sharks certainly delivered.
For 50 long seasons, the Cronulla faithful waited patiently to see their heroes anointed premiers. And after dominating for the majority of the 26 regular season matches, their prayers were finally answered on the first Sunday of October with an electrifying 14-12 win over the Melbourne Storm in a grand final for the ages.
It was a year that saw them win 15 straight matches, produce five State of Origin players and play the sort of footy that had people in the Shire celebrating harder than when Frodo Baggins destroyed the Ring of Power.
Despite their club-record winning streak, the Sharks missed out on the minor premiership following a Round 26 loss to the Storm that saw them finish third on the Telstra Premiership ladder.
They were tipped by some to struggle in the post-season, but rightly questioned the doubters with the hashtag 'Why not us?' that ran true to the final thrilling play of the grand final.
Where they excelled: The back three of Valentine Holmes, Sosaia Feki and Ben Barba crossed for a whopping 49 tries in 2016 in what was comfortably the most prolific output of any combination in the NRL. Holmes, who finished with 19 tries, matched club great David Peachey's record for tries in a single season. Cronulla's home record was the envy of the rest of the competition, with the Sharks claiming victory in 11 of their 12 matches at Southern Cross Group Stadium. Another highlight of their season was their ability to win the tight contests. The Sharks snuck home on 12 occasions by 10 points or less, with seven of those by less than a try. A lot of those were come-from-behind wins; the grand final typifying their never-say-die attitude. And for a team that kicked the most penalty goals in the NRL in 2016, it was fitting that a gift two points would be the difference on the biggest night in the club's 50-year history.
Where they struggled: Discipline was an issue for the Sharks with the premiers conceding 190 penalties after 26 rounds. Only the Sea Eagles (193) gave away more. They also came up with 235 errors in the regular season, with only the Roosters (263) making more mistakes. Apart from a lean stretch at the back end of the season, there was very little to fault with how Shane Flanagan's men performed in 2016.
Missing in action: Like most premiership-winning sides, the Sharks enjoyed a fairly clean bill of health in 2016. Ben Barba and Chad Townsend were the only two players who featured in all 27 matches, but a further 10 Sharks played in at least 25 games this season. Skipper Paul Gallen was restricted to 20 appearances because of knee and back complaints, Sam Tagataese missed six games at the back end of the season with a fractured scapula, while Joseph Paulo missed the grand final with a knee injury he picked up in Round 26.
Turning point: You have to go all the way back to Round 4 for the match that defined their season. Having started the year with a 1-2 record, the Sharks simply had to win against the Storm at home on Monday night to prove themselves as genuine premiership threats. And that's exactly what they did, grinding their way to a 14-6 victory that kick-started their 15-game winning streak and served as a dress rehearsal for their meeting six months later.
Hold your head high: Ben Barba. He started the pre-season on the bench, and finished the year as the first try-scorer in the grand final. It was an incredible return to form for the 2012 Dally M winner. Barba scored 15 tries during the regular season, had a team-high 18 assists and broke the line 17 times in his best year since taking the Bulldogs to the decider four years ago.
2016 crystal ball: No team has gone back-to-back since the Broncos in 1992-93, and the Sharks will experience what it's like to be the 'hunted' as opposed to the 'hunter' for the first time next year. The retirement of Michael Ennis looms as the biggest headache for the Sharks, who have recruited Manaia Cherrington and have been linked with Damien Cook as his possible replacement. Dally M Holden Cup Player of the Year Jayden Brailey is another hooking option having excelled in the NYC in 2016. Now that they've reached Everest, it will be interesting to see how the senior players back up next year.
Conclusion: Burdened by 50 seasons of expectation, 2016 will be seen as the year the Sharks finally got the proverbial monkey off their back. Speaking after the drought-breaking win on Sunday night, Paul Gallen said that the hunger to break half a century of history got them home.
"There's a bit of relief now but it was never a burden for myself or this current playing group," Gallen said.
"I've been here for the last 15 years so I've been a part of everything's happened then but the last couple of years we've really built for this year and really happy that the boys played the way they did. It came down to desire and wanting it more and I think that was the difference tonight."
Celebrations are going to last a very long time in Sydney's south, and for the players and long-suffering fans alike, it's a month-long party that they all deserve. The only question now is whether there will be any premiership hangover in 2017.
REGULAR SEASON STATISTICS
Home Record: 11-1
Away Record: 6-5
Longest Winning Streak: 15 games (Round 4-20)
Longest Losing Streak: 3 games (Round 22-24)
Players Used: 24
Tries Scored: 99
Tries Conceded: 69