How Sharks rebuilt from top to bottom after ASADA drama

After enduring their year from hell in which the club finished last after the ASADA penalties, Cronulla made a decision to ensure the club would be strong again from top to bottom.

Four seasons after forming their elite academy and high performance unit, the investment is paying big dividends with the club's Jersey Flegg and Intrust Super Premiership teams heading into grand finals and the NRL squad gunning for a second premiership in three years.

The brainchild of coach Shane Flanagan and the CEO at the time, Steve Noyce, one of the keys to its success was signing Andrew Gray from the Dragons to become the club's physical performance manager.

Jayden Brailey was one of the first players to graduate from the program to the NRL while Flanagan's son Kyle also recently made his Telstra Premiership debut after coming through the academy system.

However the results go this weekend, the Newtown Jets – Cronulla's ISP team – and the under 20s have each had remarkable seasons while the senior squad will travel to Melbourne looking for a spot in the Telstra Premiership grand final.

"We're really pleased with the position we're in at the moment – it's been a lot of hard work," Flanagan told NRL.com of the progress of the system.

Sharks coach Shane Flanagan.
Sharks coach Shane Flanagan. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

"The club's invested a lot in people and facilities and equipment and now we're starting to see the rewards of putting those systems and programs in place.

"The pathway program, our elite academy, our whole academy system has been up and running since 2015 and some of those players – Jayden Brailey was in the first group of those players. We're starting to see some benefit from it.

"When we started back in '15 with the players we had in it then, [we had the view] they would be better players when they got to 20, 21 and that's proven a point that if we put time into them from when they're 14 or 15, the good ones bubble to the surface, the good ones. There's a production line of them at the moment."

Kyle Flanagan and Brailey's younger brother Blayke will contest the ISP decider and Flanagan snr said there was a "production line" of players on the way through to the NRL squad.

"Kyle, Blayke Brailey, Briton Nikora, Billy Magoulias and there's another group underneath that," Flanagan said.

"We're trying to get three or four or five to come through every year and if we get that we're doing a good job."

Exciting centre Bronson Xerri would have played NRL this year if he had not been ineligible due to his age but is certain to taste NRL footy next year.

"Bronson Xerri, he's played Australian Schoolboys. He can't actually play first grade because he's not 18 until later this month. I would have probably given him a game if he was eligible to play but he'll definitely play next year, he's one of those elite kids," Flanagan said.

Flanagan credited Gray and assistant coaches Jim Dymock and John Morris for instilling the teenaged players with an NRL work ethic and exposure to elite-level training techniques.

Joseph Paulo at Sharks training.
Joseph Paulo at Sharks training. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

"[Gray] sets up programs for every age group with their strength and conditioning and then we go to our well-being and education officers and they set up programs for 14s, 15s, 16, 17s, 18s," Flanagan said.

"Everyone within the organisation has a piece of it. We try and put that into the program so there's a lot of nutritional advice, we do some finance and education around when to eat and sleep and they do all their testing. Probably the main thing is we expose them to NRL training from the age of 14 with NRL coaching.

"Jimmy Dymock and John Morris are down there consistently and I'm down there when I can. We want to try to expose them to NRL at junior level.

"Jim teaches them how to lift properly so when they get a bit older they can maximise their potential.

"We've gone for three or four years so we understand what has worked and what hasn't worked."

After the 2016 season Flanagan and Gray visited the UK to cherry-pick ideas from major Premier League clubs like Tottenham and Chelsea.

Flanagan, who is in negotiations to extend his deal at the Sharks, said he wasn't going to delve into specifics in the middle of a finals campaign of his talks with the club.

"I want to stay at the club long term ... I've got to make sure I set the club up for long term-success," he said.

"I've been here for a long period of time now, I want to see it be successful. Our elite academy program is something that's a big part of the foundations in making sure we're going to be successful in the long term."

Braydon Trindall, Blayke Brailey and Matt Prior.
Braydon Trindall, Blayke Brailey and Matt Prior. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

Blayke Brailey was 16 when the academy started up but was in the Sharks system for three years before that and said the changes in that time have been huge.

"It's grown immensely," Brailey told NRL.com.

"We started where these units are now [gesturing towards the new Woolooware Bay housing development adjacent to Southern Cross Group Stadium] with that little shed at the back as our gym.

"Now we've turned it into a massive facility here and down at Cronulla. It's really helpful, it's amazing what we've got at the moment. We've been lucky to have great coaches all through the ranks."

Kyle Flanagan told NRL.com the system had been a huge help in nurturing him through from juniors to NRL level.

"I feel like I've been training in an NRL environment since I was in under-12s," he said.

"We're exposed early to good quality training and quality coaches. The new academy down the road was pretty special and the boys love coming to training."

 

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