2018 Season Review
While the disappointment of falling one game short of the grand final still lingers, 2018 was a resounding success for the Cronulla Sharks.
Despite a wretched run with injury, the Sharks established themselves among the elite teams in the NRL and unearthed a plethora of young talent.
Cronulla finished fourth but was on equal points with the first-placed Sydney Roosters – the eventual champions – in what was the closest season in recent memory.
Without injuries to key players in the business end of the year, it's not unreasonable to say the Sharks could have claimed the minor premiership and challenged for the main title.
Captain Paul Gallen put it best at the Cronulla presentation night during the week: "We went as far as we possibly could have this year".
Given the likes of Gallen, Wade Graham, and Josh Dugan all sat in the casualty ward for the preliminary final against the Melbourne Storm, while others played busted, advancing to the grand final was a near impossible task.
It begs the question: what if the Sharks were fully fit? They had already trumped Melbourne twice in the season, including keeping them tryless in round four.
But with the team wounded, the Storm proved far too strong and ended the year of the Shire men.
Sharks fans will also be ruing two losses late in the season that effectively cost their team the minor premiership.
The two-point loss to the Brisbane Broncos in round 20 was the game that slipped away, with the Sharks missing a straightforward conversion and having one try controversially denied.
However, a defeat to the Manly Sea Eagles the week after stung more. Cruising with 10 minutes to go, Cronulla somehow allowed Manly back into the contest and eventually went down by a field goal in golden point.
As it turned out, the Sharks would have clinched the JJ Giltinan Shield had they won either of those games. Oh, what if...
Holmes finds his feet at fullback... and then some
It's impossible to reflect on the year that was without mentioning the breathtaking feats of Valentine Holmes.
The speedster now has a mortgage on the fullback position after a brilliant post-State of Origin period in which he was arguably the competition's best player.
Holmes bested the Sharks' all-time record for tries in a season, nabbing an incredible 22 four-pointers from 26 games.
His blistering pace off the mark, deft footwork and natural footballing instincts made the sight of Holmes streaking away up the middle very common.
And his form was even more impressive given he was shafted onto the wing following a lacklustre start to 2018 in the custodian's role before fighting his way back into the No.1 jersey.
After claiming the Sharks Player of the Year, Member's Player of the Year and Player's Player awards, it's fair to say he won't be returning to the flank in Cronulla colours anytime soon.
Recruits right at home in the Shire
Matt Moylan had a slow beginning to his Sharks' career by his own admission, but come the end of the season he was among the NRL's premier five-eighths.
Moylan produced some stunning solo performances – he set up six tries in a demolition of the Newcastle Knights in round 12 and also tore his former club Penrith apart twice, including in a semi-final.
His combination with halfback Chad Townsend grew considerably as time went on, and it's exciting to think how good the pair will be with another pre-season together under their belt.
Cronulla's other star off-season recruit, Josh Dugan, showed glimpses of his powers during the year and was outstanding when on the park.
Injury unfortunately dogged the mercurial centre and restricted him to 14 matches for the Sharks, but the prospect of a fully fit Dugan in 2019 has supporters salivating.
Mid-year signing Aaron Woods added starch to the Sharks' forward pack and was rewarded for his efforts with a berth in the Kangaroos squad for the upcoming Tests.
Woods too will benefit from pre-season training with the Sharks as he looks to nail a starting spot next year.
Youngsters prove the future is bright
If there was something good to come from Cronulla's enormous injury toll, it was the number of youngsters who received their chance to step up to the NRL.
Sione Katoa, Jack Williams, Braden Uele, Kyle Flanagan and Kurt Dillon all made their first-grade debuts in 2018 and didn't look out of place whatsoever.
Meanwhile, utility Kurt Capewell continued to thrive in whatever role he was thrown in and the re-emergence of local junior Scott Sorensen after three years away from the club was brilliant to watch.
Jesse Ramien was a sensation in the centres, deservedly winning Cronulla's Rookie of the Year for his eye-catching exploits out wide.
Ramien is departing the club for the Newcastle Knights but his rapid rise is indicative of the gifted youth on the Sharks' books.
When you factor in that Cronulla's feeder team, the Newtown Jets, made the Intrust Super Premiership grand final and the Sharks Jersey Flegg under-20s reigned as premiers, it's clear the future is bright.
Though top players such as Ramien, Luke Lewis, Ricky Leutele, and Edrick Lee will be missed next season, the Sharks' development system has ingrained a culture of stepping up that holds them in great stead.