Cronulla footballer Wade Graham acknowledges it might sound strange, while his teammate Jesse Ramien has never encountered a similar situation. However, a substantial 28-point drubbing delivered by the reigning premiers Penrith has been identified as the most unlikely turning point in Cronulla’s season. The defeat also served as motivation for the latest salvage operation for the team.
Nicho Hynes, the Sharks‘ star halfback, has been sorely missed after last week’s 32-6 defeat by Newcastle. Cronulla fans eagerly anticipate the return of the Dally M medal winner to the side. He is expected to gradually increase his training intensity in preparation for Sunday’s much-awaited game against Canberra.
A win against Canberra would ensure a home final for the Sharks. Only five weeks ago, after a 28-0 thrashing by the Panthers which saw them kept scoreless for the second time since 2015, pundits had counted Cronulla out for the season. Injuries didn’t help their position either with key player Will Kennedy bowing out after just five minutes due to a severe hamstring tear.
However, Craig Fitzgibbon and his team dug deep into the game’s granular details. They took solace from restricting Penrith’s damage given the Panthers had 60 per cent ball possession and made 57 tackles within Cronulla’s 20-metre zone. The impressive play by Penrith, evident by their single mistake first half, their 88 per cent completion rate, and made multiple tackles, is worth noting. Also memorable is Cameron McInnes‘s record-shattering 81-tackle effort.
The stats seem even more significant considering how defensively weak the Sharks had been in the lead-up to the game against Panthers. The team had suffered thrashings from both the Storm and the Warriors due to less skewed stats. It does carry a hint of irony, as noted by Ramien.
Ramien stated, “We’ve all seen what Penrith can do with even a little bit of extra ball. To hold a team like that out and go down swinging, not to let the floodgates open, that game swung us in the right direction. It’s strange to get momentum from a loss like that, but it could have been 60.”
After the game, there were significant reshuffles with Will Kennedy leaving and others filling in unfamiliar roles. For instance, Briton Nikora was switched to centre and Sifa Talakai took Ramien’s place.
Likening the odd victory feel from the Penrith defeat and the bounceback that followed that game – wins over the Rabbitohs, Titans, and Cowboys – Graham is seeking a similar recovery after the rather disappointing performance in Newcastle. Rubbing salt into the wound is the fact that he had secured tickets for 60 family members and friends for his farewell game at Shark Park.
Graham reflected on the lessons learnt from the defeats, saying, “There was a shift in our defence that night and our resilience. We didn’t play well at all and we got flexed on the scoreboard but we were dealing with adversity on the run and just got on with it. We were fighting uphill and we can’t afford to let that happen again because there’s no second chances from here on. But we take positives out of the fact that if we do get it right, we do make it easier on ourselves, we put ourselves in a decent position.”
Hynes is set to return for the game against the Raiders, but only a long shot is calling for Kennedy, who recently resumed running, to feature in the finals’ first week.