Have the Cronulla Sharks discovered the formula for building a successful NRL team, by accident?
The Sharks have taken six straight victories – for the first time in a decade – and sit behind only the star-studded Melbourne Storm and Brisbane Broncos on the NRL ladder.
This is a team that finished just one win ahead of the wooden spooners last season.
For his part, Shane Flanagan – the man who has coached the Sharks since mid-2010 – says the team's recent success is not down to him. "I'm not coaching any different to what I was doing last year," Flanagan told reporters after Cronulla's latest win. "It's just the players are doing the job and the players need all the credit."
Skipper Paul Gallen agreed that the team's recruiting drive in the off-season has paid dividends. "It's the players. With all due respect, the players that were here the last couple of years … we just didn't have a real quality roster."
In hindsight, the Sharks were the league's most savvy recruiters in off-season. And yet they've done it without the recruiting power of other clubs: they don't have the established winning culture of the Broncos, or the star coach of the Storm, or the financial power of the newly-rich Knights.
While the Titans, Tigers, Eels and Knights spent big on established stars at the end of 2011, Cronulla had to make do with picking up players who were essentially unwanted at other clubs.
Bryce Gibbs and Andrew Fifita were offloaded by the Wests Tigers to make way for big-name recruit Adam Blair. Mark Taufua and Isaac De Gois were forced out of the Knights to make room for internationals Danny Buderus and Kade Snowden (who moved the other way from the Sharks). Jeff Robson was an outcast from Parramatta – a remarkable point considering the excellent form of Robson this season compared with the man who replaced him: $550,000 Eels signing Chris Sandow (last seen plying his trade in the NSW Cup). Even star Sharks recruit Todd Carney arrived after being shown the door by the Roosters.
And yet these unwanted recruits have helped make Cronulla a success this season. Gibbs and the returning Ben Ross became the front line of one of the NRL's most impressive forward packs (led as always by the unmatched Paul Gallen) while De Gois, Robson and Carney have become a very effective playmaking trio – with Carney returning to something approaching his Dally M-winning form of 2010.
Cronulla are currently up with the NRL's elite teams because they share a few key characteristics with the best of the best. The Sharks – like fellow top four sides Melbourne, Brisbane, and the Dragons – can boast a strong defence, a quality "spine", and a very good forward pack.
It's no coincidence that the top three defensive teams in the competition sit in first, second and third place on the NRL ladder. The Storm, Broncos and Sharks have conceded fewer points and missed fewer tackles than any other team.
A hard-running forward pack is also essential in the modern game, with the league-leading Storm, Broncos, Sharks and Dragons all featuring in the top five teams for running metres this season.
And the importance of a team's "spine" – the 1, 6, 7 and 9, in coaching parlance – has been a constant theme in the last few years. Practically all the successful teams this season boast a dynamic fullback, a solid organiser at halfback, a free-wheeling creator or ball-runner at five-eighth, and a strong all-round hooker (or hookers).
Carney aside, the Sharks' spine is hardly spectacular, but it has been effective. Isaac De Gois provides plenty of attacking nous from dummy half, when fit, while Robson's no-frills organisation dovetails perfectly with Carney's off-the-cuff brilliance in the halves. Cronulla's combination has certainly worked better than Parramatta's, for example, despite the Eels boasting the natural flair of Jarryd Hayne, Chris Sandow and Ben Roberts.
All three ingredients seem to be essential for a team's success. The Wests Tigers and Manly both have star-studded spines but have been let down by ineffective (and injury-affected) forward packs, with those two highly-rated teams ranked last and second-last for metres gained. South Sydney, another team that boasts a strong forward pack on paper, are third last in the league for metres gained – showing that grunt can be more effective than star power when it comes to rugby league forwards. The Warriors also have a terrific spine but possess arguably the league's worst defence, with more missed tackles than any other team.
Those teams all sit mid-table after eight rounds, despite pre-season predictions they would be genuine finals contenders.
In one sense, these points seem obvious. To win games, teams should defend well and have effective forwards and creative playmakers. Nothing new there. But the Sharks' success also hints at what factors don't matter so much to an NRL team's success. For one thing, Cronulla are short on genuine "star" players, apart from Carney and Gallen. The Gold Coast Titans meanwhile have half a dozen current or former State of Origin representatives (Scott Prince, Greg Bird, Jamal Idris, Nate Myles, Ashley Harrison, Luke Bailey) but sit in 15th place.
In particular, one of the assumed weaknesses of Cronulla at the start of the season was a "lack of class" out wide, with few recognised tryscorers in their outside backs. But their wide men – particularly veteran centres Colin Best and Ben Pomeroy – have proven to be capable of finishing off chances when their playmakers create them. This shouldn't be a surprise: the Melbourne Storm didn't miss a beat in recent years despite offloading backline stars Israel Folau and Greg Inglis. Inglis himself has only really started to make an impact at South Sydney since making the switch from the centres to fullback (improving the Rabbitohs' spine in the process). Star wide men may be the NRL's great entertainers, but they don't necessarily win you games.
With the NRL's salary cap creating a fairly level playing field for all teams, it's more important than ever for clubs spend their salary cap in a way that maximises their winning potential – and the current league leaders have all managed to get bang for their buck. The Storm have three bona fide superstars and have surrounded them with youngsters and journeymen, with a coach who is capable of getting the most out of such players. The Broncos have an all-star forward pack and an experienced halfback, complimented by some of the game's best youngsters who are yet to hit their peak (in terms of both talent and asking price). And the Sharks have managed to snap up a handful of underrated outcasts.
Of course, this may all just be a case of an average team going on a lucky winning streak early in the season, and perhaps the Sharks will fade as the finals get closer. But at this rate, injuries notwithstanding, Cronulla is certainly looking like a team capable of finals football. At worst, they've shown a massive improvement over last season.
Getting the formula right is more important than ever for NRL teams, but the Sharks of 2012 have proven that you don't need to buy a premiership-winning coach or a $500,000 halfback to do it.