Inspirational captain Paul Gallen (right) will lead the Sharks again this season.As two of Cronulla’s greatest servants prepare to equal a longevity record and possibly head off into the sunset, Shane Flanagan is preparing to unleash his Generation Next in the NRL.
NRL season 2018 shapes as a changing of the guard in the Shire with premiership heroes Paul Gallen and Luke Lewis weighing up whether to hang up their boots when the campaign ends.
Both will this year equal former Shark Andrew Ettingshausen’s league record for most seasons played when they run around for their 18th year.
Lewis, 34, has a one-year deal and is refusing to speculate about his future.
Gallen, after retiring from rep football, had arguably his best year in 2017 – making the second most metres in the competition – and the 36-year-old co-captain says he could very well go around again in 2019.
And while the possible departure of two of the club’s most revered players will be keenly felt, Flanagan has one eye on the future with an exciting crop of youngsters set to be blooded this year.
Speedster Sione Katoa is expected to start the year on the right wing.
Flanagan’s son Kyle, a promising halfback who set pointscoring records in last year’s National Youth Competition, will come into contention at some point.
Ball-playing back-rower Billy Magoulias should push for a spot towards the back end of the season.
And Flanagan says Blayke Brailey, younger brother of hooker Jayden, is nearing being first-grade ready.
“It’s just a matter of blending them into a winning culture and not expecting them to come in and change the game,” Flanagan told AAP.
“Just be part of it rather than solve problems themselves. That’s a really important factor.
“When Jack Bird came in at the start of 2015, he came into a winning team and it was easy for him.
“If you’re winning, it makes it easier to blood those sorts of players, they just fit in.”
It’s been an off-season of upheaval at Southern Cross Group Stadium and one very much with the future in mind.
Matt Moylan, 26, has arrived from Penrith in exchange for veteran dual premiership playmaker James Maloney, a move that they hope will keep their premiership window open for years to come.
Bird’s defection to Brisbane is a body blow but Josh Dugan is a like-for-like replacement.
Dugan will start the year at right centre with Moylan to slot in at five-eighth.
Flanagan says he’ll resist the temptation to use one of them at fullback and shift Valentine Holmes to the wing, where he starred during the World Cup.
One of the criticisms of Holmes is, with him at fullback, the side scored 28 less tries last year than they did during their premiership year when Ben Barba had the No.1 jersey.
While Holmes didn’t have the same impact at fullback (six tries, six try assists) compared to Barba the year before (16 tries, 21 try assists), he’s seen as a work in progress.
And Flanagan said finding continuity in attack and the tryline more often remains one of the Sharks’ biggest focusses.
“We’ve worked hard on that. Last year, the loss of Ben Barba, no one took up that slack,” Flanagan said.
“Val scored 19 tries the year before on the wing, he scored six last year and so he was down over 10 tries himself.
“Moylan is going to add a lot to our footy team and Duges will add something and Val is a year older in that position as well.
“I think we’ll be a better offensive team and then you have a guy like Sione Katoa who is a genuine fast finisher, he can beat people with just natural speed.
“We’ll have more points in us and we’ve worked hard in the off-season to get that right.”
Ladder finish over the past three seasons: 2017 – 5th, 2016 – 3rd (premiers), 2015 – 6th
Coach: Shane Flanagan
Captain: Paul Gallen
Gains: Josh Dugan (Dragons), Matt Moylan (Panthers), Aaron Gray (Rabbitohs), Trent Hodkinson (Knights), Ava Seumanufagai, (Wests Tigers), Braden Uele (Cowboys)
Losses: James Maloney (Panthers), Gerard Beale (Warriors), Jack Bird (Broncos), Fa’amanu Brown (Bulldogs), Manaia Cherrington (Warriors), Chris Heighington (Knights), Jeremy Latimore (Dragons), Sam Tagataese (Broncos), Tony Williams (Eels)
Best team: 1. Valentine Holmes, 2. Sosaia Feki, 3. Josh Dugan, 4. Ricky Leutele, 5. Sione Katoa, 6. Matt Moylan, 7. Chad Townsend, 8. Andrew Fifita, 9. Jayden Brailey, 10. Matt Prior, 11. Wade Graham, 12. Luke Lewis, 13. Paul Gallen. Bench: 14. James Segeyaro, 15. Jayson Bukuya, 16. Ava Seumanufagai, 17. Kurt Capewell.
Predicted finish: 5th