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This week in history: Maloney completes 2016 puzzle

The internet offers a variety of strategies for completing a jigsaw puzzle. The most common advice is to start with the edges – the straight pieces. Forming the border first gives you a clear framework.

Next, focus on assembling the bigger, more distinctive images within the puzzle. Piece by piece, the picture will come together until you are left with one solitary element. This final piece is not always the most intricate or oddly shaped, but in its absence the complete picture fails to show.

During this week in 2015, June 19 to be exact, the Cronulla Sharks landed the last piece of their premiership puzzle when they secured the services of James Maloney for the 2016 season.

Somewhat of a journeyman, Maloney landed at the Sharks via the North Sydney Bears, Parramatta Eels, Melbourne Storm, New Zealand Warriors and Sydney Roosters. Hailing from Orange in regional NSW, Maloney arrived having played over 150 NRL games and three matches for the NSW Blues.

While his signing may be dramatised, his track record is certainly not. Maloney arrived a proven winner having helped steer perennial underachievers the New Zealand Warriors to the decider in 2011 and then the Sydney Roosters to premiership glory in 2013.

In the seasons leading up to Maloney arriving, head coach Shane Flanagan did as was suggested: he started piecing together his puzzle, forming the borders and straight sides with Paul Gallen, Wade Graham and Jayson Bukuya. In 2012 he added Andrew Fifita and Bryce Gibbs from the Wests Tigers, Ben Ross returned from South Sydney and a young Kiwi outside back named Sosaia Feki joined the Sharks.

The following season he started filling in the gaps, adding the experience of Luke Lewis, Chris Heighington, Michael Gordon and Beau Ryan.

Ben Barba, Matt Prior, Michael Ennis and Gerard Beale were also brought into what was becoming a formidable roster. But try as they may, that elusive premiership was still at arm's length.

This point was never more evident than on September 19, 2015. Flanagan sat in the sheds of 1300SMILES Stadium having just watched as the Sharks were completely outplayed by the North Queensland Cowboys in the second week of the finals. In the days, weeks and months later, we can only guess Flanno would have looked back on his puzzle that was the 2015 NRL campaign, knowing his masterpiece was missing that final block to give the Sharks what they so desperately craved – that coveted maiden premiership.

With the benefit of hindsight, we wonder if Flanagan knew what we do now: the piece of the puzzle the Sharks were missing had signed only a few months prior and was readying himself for what was to be the greatest season in Cronulla history.

At the time of Maloney's signing, Flanagan said: "James is a quality addition to our 2016 roster, with his attacking flair and general play kicking first class. He has indicated to me today that he is looking forward to joining up with and playing alongside experienced forwards in our club like Gallen, Lewis, Graham, Ennis and Fifita."

Despite a first-up loss to the Cowboys, the Sharks went through rounds four to 22 of 2016 without a defeat. Along the way they claimed the scalps of premiership heavyweights the Storm, Cowboys, Broncos and even a rare win over bogey team the Manly Sea Eagles.

Led from the front by inspirational skipper Gallen, Cronulla were extraordinary as they played an open, attacking brand of football not seen since the John Lang era. With their newfound flair, soldered together with Flanagan's hard-edged defensive structure, those south of the Captain Cook bridge dared to dream.

In the preliminary final win over North Queensland in front of a sold-out SFS, Maloney scored one of the great Cronulla Sharks tries. With the Cowboys deep in the Sharks' half, Gavin Cooper ran deep into the line, looking to put fullback Lachlan Coote through a gaping hole.

Maloney hedged his bets, choosing to back himself to intercept the pass. As Cooper passed, Maloney stuck out his mitt and, as the luck had run with the Sharks all season, the ball stuck. Maloney gathered in the pass and set off towards the try line, cutting through a number of Cowboys defenders before planting the ball down in the corner to catapult the Sharks into the season's decider.

Maloney celebrates after scoring his famous intercept try in the 2016 prelim.
Maloney celebrates after scoring his famous intercept try in the 2016 prelim.

It's at this moment that a large portion of Sharks fans knew the puzzle was complete. Every little piece, sorted and gathered in the previous few seasons, was about to form a most spectacular image.

As they say, the rest is history. The following week, the image was formed in the shape of the 2016 premiership. Maloney was a piece of a larger puzzle, of course, but perhaps the most important piece of all.

Acknowledgement of Country

Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks respect and honour the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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