Cronulla Sharks 2019 season preview

Even by Cronulla's unenviable standards, theirs has been a rough summer as far as the headlines go.

Shane Flanagan was deregistered then resigned, Valentine Holmes rejected the richest contract the Sharks have offered to chase an NFL start, and then there's the salary cap investigation that has been a lingering shadow over the club along with conjecture about CEO Barry Russell's tenure.

That they still boast a roster featuring eight recent NSW Origin reps, and were able to add the brilliance of Shaun Johnson to it in November, gets lost among all the off-field muck and mire.

Which is exactly how one of the game's best exponents of a siege mentality likes things.

The 2019 outlook

What’s new

The coach, the spine and the edges. John Morris's installation remains the biggest shake-up, even if part of his appeal was the familiarity he shares with Cronulla's players and systems and vice-versa.

Among the playmakers Johnson will slot into the halves alongside former Warriors teammate Chad Townsend as Matt Moylan swings back to his preferred No.1 jersey.

And with Luke Lewis retired, Ricky Leutele (Toronto), Jesse Ramien and Edrick Lee (Knights) gone and Wade Graham (ACL) out for the first half of the year, the Sharks have no shortage of upheaval out wide.

The addition of reliable veteran Josh Morris covers them on the left, while neither Kurt Capewell or Scott Sorensen are strangers to first grade these days.

The draw

Cronulla bookend their 2019 campaign with handy first and last months. They don't face a finals contender from last year in the opening month of the competition, while five of their last seven games are at home.

The only two away trips remain in Sydney, with Penrith and Leichhardt Oval the furthest they travel after round 18.

While it's quite possible Graham, Moylan, Josh Dugan and Andrew Fifita won't feature this year for NSW, the post-Origin period is still a gruelling one for the Sharks.

An eight-week stretch follows game three on July 10 in which Cronulla face the Storm, the Warriors, the Cowboys, South Sydney, Penrith, St George Illawarra, the Warriors again and Canberra in the lead-up to the finals.

The stat that gives you hope

Cronulla's imposing pack had defences on high alert more than any other last season, with four of their big men drawing three or more tacklers with the majority of their carries. Prior (70%), Aaron Woods (69%), Paul Gallen (61%) and Fifita (57%) all ranked among the top 25 middle forwards for drawing defenders, with no club represented as often as the Sharks.

What you need to know NRL Fantasy-wise

Fifita ($864,000) and Gallen ($682,000) have been Fantasy superstars for years while Johnson ($773,000) is an intriguing option after switching to a club where he's no longer necessarily the main man in attack. Second-rowers Capewell ($428,000) and Sorensen ($437,000) lead the value buys at Cronulla, while highly-rated youngster Bronson Xerri ($212,000) will be one to keep an eye out for. – Lone Scout

The coach

John Morris is already on the record declaring he won't reinvent the wheel given the club's roster is good enough to claim a title in the here and now.

The 38-year-old doesn't have to, but keeping it spinning presents its own challenges for the youngest coach in the game.

Sharks types have had Morris pegged as an NRL mentor in waiting since the latter stages of his career.

On paper and on the paddock first-time NRL gigs don't get much better. It's navigating the off-field elements of life in the Sutherland Shire that will truly test his mettle.

Contract matters

Gallen is the only sure-fire starter up for negotiation in 2019 and is slated to finally hang the boots up this season, with a few "will he, won't he" months in between. Highly rated youngsters Blayke Brailey, Billy Magoulis and Cruz Topai-Aveai will rank as retention priorities while Aaron Gray and Sosaia Feki are off contract and likely to be playing for starting spots and their futures. 

The burning question

Can Morris keep Cronulla's egos in check?

Like it or lump it, the Sharks have the most polarising playing contingent in the Telstra Premiership and at some point their rookie coach is going to have to pull one of their big names into line, be it a trivial training/player matter or something more. How that plays out given he was a member of that same squad just five years ago will be fascinating. 

Representative bolter

Sione Katoa. The 21-year-old is rated as one of the fastest players to tread the Shark Park turf and he showed it across nine games in a rookie 2018 campaign. The youngster still speaks Tongan at home and with a wing spot up for grabs at Cronulla, he could come into the frame come Pacific Test time for Kristian Woolf.

Sione Katoa scores against Canberra.
Sione Katoa scores against Canberra. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

The player you should follow on social media

Paul Gallen. Gal's Instagram usually takes you inside the Sharks gym for an update on the club's biggest lifters or the poor bloke he's sparring with when preparing for a fight. He's also a celebrity magnet and among the promos are enough opinions to keep things interesting.

The quote

"To lose a marquee player like Val Holmes in November when a lot of the market is tied up, and then replace him with Shaun Johnson - one of the most talented players in the last decade - is an incredible outcome. If we can get the best out of him Shauny can add something we’ve never really had to our attack."  - Injured co-captain Wade Graham

Arrows indicate players who signed after the submission of initial rosters on November 1, 2018.