'No days off' mantra reaps rewards for Prior in 2016
Had for a long time been an unsung hero of the Sharks forward pack, that was until 2016 when Prior began to receive justified praise for his consistent efforts in the middle of the park.
The perfect foil for front row partner Andrew Fifita, it was only fitting the pair shared the spoils at the Monty Porter Medal night with the two named as joint winners of the Player of the Year award.
Prior’s contact in defence was a feature, stopping much bigger opponents dead in their tracks, while his four tries all came at critical times in helping the Sharks win their way through to the competition finals and ultimately premiership success.
Increased minutes in 2016 meant Prior enjoyed a greater impact on proceedings, never more evident than in the finals and Grand Final when coach Shane Flanagan was loathe to leave him on the sidelines for extended periods.
Of his three years at the club this was his best by far, with Prior now knocking on the door of representative selection and set to become a vital cog in the Sharks team in seasons to come.
Sharks fans began to take notice of Prior from early on in the 2016 season with his wholehearted defensive efforts and improved attacking play a cornerstone of the 15-match winning streak.
As for the rest of the rugby league world, the match in which Prior announced himself as a major contributor at the Sharks was in the qualifying final against the Raiders.
His defence was up to its usual high standard but his running game also impressed on that memorable night, with Prior taming the huge Raiders forward pack in a man of the match performance.
Capping the night off with a try, as his team claimed a gutsy win to move within a game of the Grand Final, the days of Prior as being unsung and unnoticed came to a very abrupt end on that night in Canberra.
The coaching staff would likely point out some of the one-on-one tackles. The ferocious hits Prior made on much bigger opposition forwards. That was his primary role and Prior was good at it.
However if looking for one moment, one inspired effort, the try scored in the dying minutes of the first half of the qualifying final against the Raiders, stands above all else.
Normally the foil for the likes of Fifita, Gallen, Graham, Lewis or halves Maloney and Townsend, this was Prior’s moment as he ran a perfect line, steamed onto a Michael Ennis pass and found himself in open space.
With only Jack Wighton standing in front of him and the try line, Prior powered over the Raiders fullback, planted the ball down and gave his team a boost of confidence heading into the half time break.
On the back of the Prior try the Sharks lifted, claimed a gutsy win and the rest as they say is history.
Arriving at the Sharks as an accomplished NRL player, a premiership winner with the Dragons at that, Prior was disappointed in his performances in 2014 in his first season at the Cronulla club.
“That was a turning point for me, I didn’t start the year off well and I remember saying to myself as the season wound down that if I want to keep this job, I’m going to have to work hard for it,’’ Prior said. “I made a decision then to try and turn things around.
“I said; ‘I’m not going to have days off, I’m going to train on my days off, I’m going to keep busy, I’m going to keep working to keep this dream alive.’’
The fruits of his labours were there for all to see with his steady improvement in 2015, continuing throughout 2016, culminating in his breakout game the finals match against Canberra.
“I guess the Raiders (man of the match) performance was a bit of proof that what I’ve been doing is working. I feel like it’s the most confident I’ve been in my ability.”
Year in Review: Matt Prior*
Games played 2016 - 25
Average tackles: 25.2
Average run metres: 102.4
Statistics via www.foxsports.com.au/nrl * and Big League Magazine