Who will run out round one and maybe more significantly, which players will cement positions in the top 17 as the year progresses?
Sharks Media takes a look at the middle forwards and which of the big men are likely to fill the front row and lock positions for coach John Morris and the Sharks in 2021.
The 2020 season finished with Aaron Woods and Braden Hamlin-Uele in the front row, Toby Rudolf at lock and the likes of Andrew Fifita and Jack Williams amongst the interchange forwards.
Then there was Royce Hunt, injured in the second to last regular season game, the impressive newcomer earned a place in the Sharks top 17 in the early rounds and held onto a spot with his performances throughout the year.
Forward to 2021 and there is one new recruit and a couple of young bucks, all the above mentioned are back on deck, although Hunt may be missing for a week or two as his recovery and rehab from knee surgery continues, with competition for middle forward positions set to be intense.
While pre-season has a few weeks yet to run, including a trial game against the Bulldogs to be played, with an eye to round one and starting positions, as the incumbents Woods and Hamlin-Uele appear to be the front runners for the two prop spots.
Both have trained strongly during the summer, Hamlin-Uele returning from a Christmas break in New Zealand in outstanding shape and as one of the experienced leaders of the Sharks pack, Woods will definitely slot somewhere into Morris’s team.
The styles of the pair complement each other, Woods the tradesman, a prop with a big engine who can play long stints and does all the little things right, and Hamlin-Uele the hard charging tearaway, an imposing figure who made a habit of crashing through the line and scoring tries for the Cronulla side last season.
Also winning a regular spot in 2020 was Rudolf, a rookie in his first season in the NRL who made a definite impression, winning a place in the Sharks 17 in round one before going on to play all but one game during the season – and the one he missed he was rested by coach Morris in round 20.
Rudolf played interchange prop and as starting lock, with his performances characterised by high energy and work rate. Where and how he fits in 2021 remains to be seen.
One to battle through 2020 due to lingering injury issues was Fifita, a player when fit a firing rated amongst the leading players in the game in his position.
When at or close to his best Fifita would be a definite asset and as a determined character, doubt the big fella at your peril.
Williams will be another with a point to prove, a knee injury hampering his training just before and after Christmas, however the man from Cooma will be fit and available for round one.
As the player anointed as the heir apparent to Paul Gallen and most likely to slip straight into the 13-jersey following the Sharks skipper’s retirement, Williams is strong and rock hard fit and will look to force Morris’s hand with his efforts in the pre-season and trial games.
Throwing a spanner in the works and set to challenge the returning crew is Aiden Tolman, the former Bulldog who has been super-impressive throughout the preseason.
A seasoned professional, Tolman is exceptionally fit, emphasised by him beating all comers in the latest yo-yo test at training and he is firmly in the frame to win a starting or interchange bench spot at his new club.
Billy Magoulias is another to have caught the eye during the summer, with his ball playing ability and versatility a string to his bow. After starring for the Newtown Jets at the back end of the 2019 season big things were predicted and after his efforts before and in the week after Christmas, maybe 2021 will be the year Magoulias makes his mark in the NRL.
Big, strong youngster Franklin Pele will also come into contention, the 20-year-old former Australian Schoolboy rep has a huge reputation with a big future predicted and as they say, “if you are good enough you are old enough”, so don’t discount him.
And let's not discount Sharks 2020 Player's Player Siosifa Talakai, who Morris has used both in the middle of the field and as a wider running back rower.
While shoulder surgery will potentially see Talakai miss the opening round or two of the upcoming season, if he can recapture the form which he produced last year, the former Rabbitoh's junior will be in the team somewhere, whether as a lock, middle or on an edge.
Local junior Vasquez enjoyed a taste of the top level in 2020 and will be doing all he can to take the next step into becoming a regular in the NRL, while Martin comes to the Sharks highly rated having played for the Maroons at age group level.
It is an important role they play, with Morris and the Sharks well equipped with a variety of middle forwards to choose from in 2021.
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