Cronulla Sharks 2017 Season in Review
The rugby league clock is ticking at the Cronulla Sharks and the players are well aware of the tight window of opportunity to win a second Telstra Premiership while commandos like Paul Gallen and Luke Lewis are still around.
Like the Manly Sea Eagles after their 2008 title, when players such as Jamie Lyon, Anthony Watmough, Brent Kite and the Stewart brothers Glenn and Brett knew they needed to capitalise on the group they had, the Sharks are facing a similar deadline.
The Sea Eagles did collect more silverware. They won again in 2011 with eight of their starting 13 from the 2008 grand final present.
From Cronulla's starting 13 for the 2016 premiership, nine are still there two years on at the start of the 2018 season.
They include former Test and Origin players Gallen, 36, and Lewis, 34, but both are off contract at the end of this year. They may well play on, but there's a good chance they won't. And players like Wade Graham know the consequences.
There's changes coming to the club whether we like it or not.Wade Graham
"It's obviously a big season for the club. The next 12-18 months actually will be really big for the club," Graham told NRL.com.
"I'm signed for the next two years, to help this core group of young players coming through. There's changes coming to the club whether we like it or not.
"We'll face those challenges when they come."
The player turnover has already begun. Michael Ennis and Ben Barba were gone by 2017 and for 2018 there is no Chris Heighington, Gerard Beale, Sam Tagataese, Jeremy Latimore, Jack Bird or James Maloney.
However, the recruitment of Josh Dugan, Matt Moylan and Ava Seumanufagai has been significant.
Dugan said the fact a large core of the 2016 Telstra Premiership team is still around – especially the hardened heads of Gallen and Lewis – was key in him making the break from St George Illawarra.
"Having to leave the Dragons, making that decision, was tough," Dugan told NRL.com.
"But looking what is here at the Sharks, particularly the calibre of players going forward, that helped me a lot more to make the decision.
"It's a good squad that won a grand final and have been making the finals the last few years, that's a big driving factor (for me)."
Dugan and Graham have both played for NSW and Australia. They will be the players the squad looks towards, along with Valentine Holmes, Matt Prior and Andrew Fifita, to help the Sharks' rejuvenation.
The hard-running veteran has not experienced a grand final or premiership in his nine years so far in first grade.
"It's still a good squad again this year (despite player departures) and that's the goal again – to make finals footy," Dugan said. "I definitely want to pay some good footy before I finish up.
"I think I've got four or five or six years left depending on how things go. I am here for the next four so let's see what happens."
He is keen to squeeze the last juice out of Gallen and Lewis before they leave.
"They are the exceptions," Dugan said, when talking about the usual retirement age of players.
"The squad we've got at the Sharks has a good mixture of young and experienced guys.
"Wade is 27; I'm 27; and we've played a fair amount of games. Wado has played over 200; I've played 150. We've got guys coming through learning first grade and getting a crack at it.
"Then you've got Gal and Lewie with over 300 games. That's going to make the club not only strong this year but moving forward."
Graham doesn't really want to think too much about Gallen and Lewis facing the last season or two of their careers. Gallen has been a mentor for nearly a decade and he's known Lewis for 20 years starting out at the Penrith Panthers.
"It will be tough as all those general questions about re-signing of contracts and that sort of stuff comes up later in the season," he said.
"They are two of the greats of the game – represented their state and their country, won grand finals.
"They certainly have had a massive influence on my career, not just as a player but as a person and how I carry myself around training and when I'm out and about. They've certainly been two major figures in my life.
"I'm not looking forward to that conversation when it comes but it happens to everyone.
"I just have to be grateful I've had so many great experiences with them. Footy doesn't last forever but mateship lasts forever."