Sharks too smart in the wet for hot-and-cold Dragons to make an unhappy homecoming for Flanagan


To paraphrase Bill Woodfull, there were two teams out there at Shark Park on Sunday but only one of them was playing wet-weather footy.

Cronulla’s conservative approach eventually extinguished St George Illawarra’s attacking instincts at PointsBet Stadium with the competition leaders doing enough to deny their 2016 premiership-winning coach Shane Flanagan victory in his first match coaching against the Sharks.

This match meant much more than usual for Flanagan, who had pointedly pointed out that the club had not won anything since he had left in acrimonious circumstances at the end of 2018.

But while his Dragons gave the ball plenty of air in the slippery conditions, Cronulla stayed focused on making ground through the middle and barging their way into points.

And in the end it was far from pretty but the 20-10 result kept Craig Fitgzibbon’s team at the top of the ladder heading into a three-week stretch where their premiership credentials will get a thorough working over from the Storm, Roosters and Panthers.

An old-school local derby

There was plenty of feeling at Shark Park on Sunday in what was a throwback match.

Even though there is plenty of modern sky-rise development now dwarfing Cronulla’s home ground, the venue itself is very much a throwback to the previous generation before modern stadiums like CommBank, Suncorp and Allianz.

The suburban feel was everywhere.

Cronulla were engulfed by St George Illawarra’s merger in 1999 with their northern and southern rivals continuing the rivalry they had always had with their Red V bigger brothers on the other side of Tom Ugly’s Bridge.

The Sharks were supposed to be red-hot favourites but the bookmakers’ prognostications are rarely less relevant than in an NRL local derby.

Jesse Ramien is tackled. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Whichever team is the underdog more often than not arcs up.

And that was the case on Sunday with St George Illawarra fighting tooth and nail to put the Sharks off their game.

The wet weather brought the high-flying Sharks back to the pack and they looked to be following the script in the 13th minute when prop Oregon Kaufusi set sail for the stripe.

A poor read in defence from Ronaldo Mulitatlo allowed visiting winger Mikaele Ravalawa to reduce the gap to two points midway through the first half and Cronulla’s Kiwi international again made a meal of a Dragons right-side raid on the stroke of half-time.

Mulitalo’s second made it 10-6 to the visitors at the break but the Sharks nudged back in front when Siosifa Talakai used his muscle to surge through the defence five minutes into the second stanza.

Good luck stopping Talakai this close to the line.

???? Watch #NRLSharksDragons on ch.502 or stream on Kayo:

— Fox League (@FOXNRL) May 5, 2024

Both teams burned their captain’s challenge and also struggled to adapt their attacking game to the conditions but after a Sione Katoa break, prop Tom Hazelton notched his third try of the season to go 18-10 up heading into the final 15 minutes.

Zac Lomax had one of those games which underline why Shane Flanagan has used him on the wing. He pushed a few too many passes, putting pressure on Ravalawa on the flank as the Dragons tried to be too expansive in the slippery conditions.

It was a high-risk style which led to a couple of tries in the first half but as they tried to counter a strong headwind in the second half, their loose passing played into Cronulla’s hands as the Sharks dominated field position.

Nicho Hynes banged over a penalty goal a few minutes from the final siren to chew up some time and continue the theme of pragmatism being the perfect plan when the Steeden is slippery.

“We were just awful, never completed sets, never got to our kick and then when we did, we didn’t nail them down in the corners,” Flanagan said. “That was a frustrating game from our perspective. Didn’t give ourselves a chance because of the errors we made.

“When we got the football we were tired and flat because of all the defence we did. They applied pressure and fatigued the opposition. They made us make too many tackles. It was self-inflicted pain, most of it.”

Fitzgibbon said there were no real standout players which he thought it meant the team did its job.

“Sometimes you hold your gloves up for long enough and finally the dam broke and they scored (just before half-time),” he said while mixing his metaphors with aplomb.

“I was pretty pleased with the way we came out of that. It’s Round 9, assessing where we’re at, so much can happen between now and the end of the year. We’ve been consistent so we’re pretty happy with that.”

Flanagan’s honesty refreshing

In an era when players and coaches speak from the same bland template, Flanagan’s honesty is refreshing.

He could have easily said “it’s just another game” when asked in the lead-up to the game against Cronulla, a club he coached in 185 matches over the best part of a decade, including their iconic premiership win eight years ago.

But he tried to throw them off their game by remarking that they hadn’t won anything since he left last week and then on Saturday saying “they’ll never just be another club”.

Ravalawa scores his second and the Dragons steal the lead.

???? Watch #NRLSharksDragons on ch.502 or stream on Kayo:

— Fox League (@FOXNRL) May 5, 2024

And the Sharks laughed loudest by winning Sunday’s Round 9 clash against Flanagan’s outclassed underdogs but it would be a dull old NRL if every coach spoke from the same corporate hymn sheet.

Flanagan’s tenure at the Sharks is remembered by his critics for the peptides scandal and his unwillingness to accept bans, and abide by them, but for the club’s long-suffering fans, he will always be remembered as the coach who broke the premiership drought in their 50th season, a day that many of them thought would never come.

He is off to an encouraging start in his first season at St George Illawarra, rebuilding a club that needed a thorough clean-out while restoring his own reputation in the process.

The Dragons are long shots to make the finals but they are showing more resilience this season that at any time in the past few years and just like he did at Cronulla when he recruited Luke Lewis, Andrew Fifita, Ben Barba and Michael Ennis, if Flanagan can get some marquee names to his new club, he is capable of taking them a long way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.