Dominant for the best part of the 26 rounds, six players plus the coach selected in the Holden Cup Team of the Year, 2017 has so far been a standout season for the NYC Sharks.
Despite hitting a late speed bump, one which saw them lose their final two matches, John Morris’s team still finished seven points clear at the top of the competition table.
But as a 300-game NRL veteran, Morris will be well aware that what has gone before now counts for little, with the Qualifying Finals clash with the Eels on Sunday now the only thing that matters.
“A new comp starts now and the best team over the next four weeks wins the comp. It’s as simple as that and we want that to be us,” Morris said.
“The last two weeks is a stark reminder that if we don’t play to our standards like we have most of the year, we’re not the team we usually are.
“We’ve got to make sure we go back to what we do well and what we’ve done all year,” he added.
After a 15 game winning streak came to an end when beaten by the Roosters in round 25, the young Sharks suffered a second consecutive loss in Newcastle last week.
The Sharks were in both games, but couldn’t quite find the attacking spark that had been a feature of their performances throughout the season.
Morris identified a couple of reasons for the back to back losses, but his team is determined to put those lapses behind them and to recapture their best form against the Eels come Sunday.
“We’ve had a bit of diversity the last couple of weeks, a heavy travel schedule and while there’s no excuses, there are reasons for the boys to be a little bit down. But they won’t be down this week,” Morris said.
“A few guys didn’t play last week resting a few bumps and we’ll get them back and jump into the week full of enthusiasm to play Parramatta.”
A couple of those players who Morris is talking about includes last week’s NRL debutant Jesse Ramien and classy fullback Will Kennedy.
Ramien played strongly in the top grade at McDonald Jones Stadium last Sunday, while Kennedy sat out the Newcastle match to overcome some niggling injuries. Kennedy will be 100 per cent for the Finals clash this weekend and Ramien returns at right centre for the Sharks.
While those two will play crucial roles, Morris will also be looking for the likes of Sione Katoa, Kyle Flanagan, Blayke Brailey, Billy Magoulias and Briton Nikora to lead the way in the Qualifying Finals match, with those five along with Ramien named in the Holden Cup Team of the Year.
The Sharks and Eels met just once, with the Eels inflicting one of only four losses on the Cronulla team in 2017, a 22-12 result back in round 4.
Plenty of football has been played since then, with the Sharks finishing as run-away minor premiers and the Eels in fourth position, setting up Sunday’s big game.
The Sharks v Eels Holden Cup clash is scheduled for a 1.30pm kick off at Allianz Stadium on Sunday.
The Sharks 20-player squad is listed below, with Morris to finalise his 17-man team one hour before kick-off.
NYC Team List – Finals Week 1
Sharks v Eels
Sunday, September 10
Kick-off – 1.30pm
1 William KENNEDY
2 Sione KATOA
3 Isaac LUMELUME
4 Jesse RAMIEN
5 Josh TUILAGI
6 Luke METCALF
7 Kyle FLANAGAN
8 Ryan KING
9 Blayke BRAILEY
10 Daniel VASQUEZ
11 Briton NIKORA
12 Joshua CARR
13 Billy MAGOULIAS ©
14 Eddie FAALUA
15 James Roumanos
16 Zachary FAULKNER
17 Teig WILTON
18 Clayton Uia
21 Luke JURD
23 Jack Williams
Here is how NRL.com previewed the Holden Cup Qualifying Final
By Martin Gabor, National Correspondent, NRL.com
Sharks v Eels
The minor premiers will start as warm favourites when they face the Eels on Sunday afternoon, and while most people will write Parramatta off, the blue and golds know they have what it takes to knock off the Sharks.
The Eels claimed a 22-12 win when the sides met in Round 4 and have shown all season long that they have both the attack and the defensive brutality to match it with the competition's best sides.
While the Eels got the chocolates on that occasion, the loss proved to be a mere blip on the radar for Cronulla who didn't lose again until Round 25 en-route to the club's first minor premiership.
Why the Sharks can win: Where to begin? They scored the most points in the NYC (920), conceded the fewest (446) and rode a 15-game winning streak to finish seven points clear of the second-placed Panthers. Halfback Kyle Flanagan finished 2017 with the most points (344) in a single season by anyone in competition history while Sione Katoa was the Holden Cup's leading try scorer with 23 four-pointers. Unsurprisingly, they had six players in the Team of the Year, as well as coach, John Morris.
Why the Eels can win: The Eels have flown under the radar a bit in 2017 but there's a reason why they finished the regular season in the top four. Winger Greg Leleisiuao scored 17 tries and broke an absurd 206 tackles in just 19 games on the edge and they've been boosted by the inclusion of star halfback Troy Dargan who has played just seven matches this season. However, their key man is interchange utility Reed Mahoney who has emerged as one of the most important players in the competition. Mahoney led the league with 965 tackles, set up 14 tries and scored 12 of his own; a feat made more incredible given the fact he only started three games.
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live coverage from 1:25pm.
NRL.com predicts: Sharks by 7