Premiers eye more silverware at NRL Nines
NRL battlers in 2014 the Sharks immediately signalled their return as a competitive force when they forced Souths to extra time in a thrilling finale to the 2015 NRL Auckland Nines.
It was the weekend in which Valentine Holmes with his sideline conversion in the competition final, as well as fellow young gun Jack Bird, announced themselves to the rugby league world with standout performances.
They were eventually beaten by Souths in the Nines Championship match but history will show the Sharks won their way through to the NRL Finals later that year, before going on to win their first Premiership title 12 months later.
Which makes the annual NRL Nines an important event for the Cronulla Club and one they will continue to treat with the utmost respect.
“We plan on sending a really good team over there and we expect to do really well in that competition,” Sharks Head Coach Flanagan said.
Despite the fact the Sharks had no choice but to schedule a 13-a-side trial match the same weekend as the Nines due to their participation in the World Club Challenge taking place just two weeks later, Flanagan has revealed a number of big names will be on the plane heading to Auckland.
“Wade Graham will lead the team, he’s a really good Nines player and we’ll be taking others who have performed well in the Nines before,” Flanagan said.
“Matt Prior, Chris Heighington in our forwards, Nu Brown, Birdy loves the Nines and is suited to that format, we’ll send these types of players. We’ll also send some young kids nobody has heard of and give them an opportunity.”
Of the players mentioned by Flanagan, Graham is the Sharks Vice-Captain and an incumbent NSW Origin player, Heighington was named in the Nines Team of the Tournament in 2015, while Brown has the skills and unpredictability to be a star on the Nines stage.
As for Prior, the Sharks Monty Porter Medallist last year, the 2015 Nines represented his return to very best form and from there he went on to become a major reason the Sharks were able to lift the NRL trophy last October.
Throw in Bird and the Sharks certainly have the nucleus of a team that can again mount a serious challenge at the NRL Nines in February.
However, before they entertain thoughts of returning to the championship match or even competing in the competition finals, the Sharks will need to get past pool opponents the Gold Coast Titans, Penrith Panthers and Canterbury Bulldogs.
With Jarryd Hayne set to turn out for the Titans, success in Auckland will be hard earned, with the Sharks to open the tournament with a match against the Gold Coast, kicking off at 12 noon (10am Sydney time).
The 2017 Downer Auckland Nines will be played at Eden Park on February 4 and 5.