After 13 rounds of the 2016 season the Sharks were sitting out in front on the NRL ladder, not coincidently tied at the top with the Melbourne Storm.
History will show that half-way mark form line translated the premiership decider as the Sharks edged out their southern rivals in a riveting Grand Final confrontation.
The Sharks enjoyed the Bye ahead of Origin one last year in round 12, then scored their ninth win in a row when James Maloney slotted a sideline conversion to beat the Bulldogs by two points to sit first on 10 wins, two losses at the halfway mark of the season.
With a weekend off to rest up, reflect and recharge for the back end of the year, we make an assessment on how the Sharks are travelling in 2017.
ATTACK – B
There have been glimpses of the type of football we all love to watch, Valentine Holmes chiming into the backline, Andrew Fifita running over opposition defenders before off-loading to willing support runners, Wade Graham and Luke Lewis creating havoc on the edges.
But 12 games in it probably hasn’t been as free flowing or as spectacular as everyone would have liked, although when needed the Sharks have scored the points to get the job done, emphasised by their 9-3 win-loss record and second position on the NRL ladder.
While not looking for excuses, their ‘spine’ as in the fullback, halves and hooker, has a new look this year and although the signs are good, the loss of Ben Barba and Michael Ennis was always going to have some sort of impact.
The Sharks had scored more at the same stage last year, 321 to 227, for one extra win, although when comparing 2016 with 2017 across the board the points scored by all the leading teams is down of numbers from the same time last year.
The positive is the Sharks have ground out wins and the ‘spine’ continues to be a work in progress, with young guns Jayden Brailey and Holmes to only get a better understanding of what is required in the weeks and months ahead.
DEFENCE – A+
While the numbers might be down on the attacking side of things, the defence rates a definite A+ with the Sharks resilience and effort on the defensive end a feature of their performances so far in 2017.
In 12 matches the Sharks have given up just 154 points (188 in 2016) to be ranked as the best defensive team in the competition.
When considering the Sharks completion rate with the football has been down and penalties conceded are up, the defensive stats are even more impressive as teams have come at them with more football to work with in better attacking situations.
Competitions are largely won on attitude and effort, which often translates into their defence, with the signs in this area very good.
HEALTH – A
‘Touch wood’ as the saying goes, so far so good on the injury front, with only James Segeyaro and Tony Williams sidelined for extended periods.
Segeyaro is however scheduled for a return from his broken arm following the second bye in round 18, with the news on Williams not so positive, the 2017 recruit out for the season following knee surgery.
Otherwise all the key personnel are fit and healthy, with the experienced brigade of Paul Gallen, Luke Lewis and Chris Heighington all playing with energy and a spring in their step.
Origin will put a strain on the four Sharks, five if Holmes get a call up for Queensland for game two, but otherwise the squad has been expertly managed by the coaching and training staff who will aim to have them still fit and firing for the big games at seasons’ end.
We don’t like to talk about injuries, to put any sort of mock on by spruiking how well the team is travelling on this front, but a small number of injury issues has certainly helped maintain the momentum through the first 13 rounds.
THE DRAW - C
Every game in the NRL is tough, as shown by the table topping Sharks only beating the last placed Knights with a late field goal and the 15th-ranked Tigers with some late Chad Townsend brilliance.
So it doesn’t really matter who you play in that respect, however the Sharks have a tough run during August, with a series of matches against fellow finals contenders.
The Sharks have a date at home with the Raiders in round 22, before going on the road, or at least getting in a plane, to play the Broncos and Cowboys in Queensland over the following two weeks, those matches before a clash with the rejuvenated Roosters in round 25.
And all that after a trip across the Tasman to tackle the Warriors in round 21.
The frequent flyer points balance will benefit however it is a lot of travel coming into the big finals games.
All matches in the NRL are hard, just some are more difficult than others and the Sharks draw towards the back end of the season is a challenging one.
PROSPECTS – A+
Last year we said “why not us”, now as the Sharks mount a title defence everybody outside the club saying it is impossible to go back to back, but internally we are quietly saying that anything is possible.
The team sits second on the ladder despite not quite hitting their straps, the new ‘spine’ continues to improve and most of the squad was around last year and knows what it takes.
Add to that the team is healthy, with Segeyaro set to provide some impact on his return and the sky is again the limit, the prospects of repeating the triumph of 2016 are high. “Why not us” to be first team to defend since Brisbane did it in 1997-1998.