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'We expect to be in finals': Graham ignoring doubters

The doomsayers are descending on Cronulla once again.

But skipper Wade Graham is employing the same tactic he used the last few times dark clouds parked themselves over the Sharks: turning a blind eye to all the commentary and criticism.

They came thick and fast during the ASADA years, the suspension-deregistration of Shane Flanagan (twice), the club debts to various financial institutions, the salary cap breaches and the revolving door with CEOs.

But this time the punters are deleting the Sharks from their top-eight for 2020 mainly due to on-field personnel rather than off-field issues – the under-whelming form of some of their highest-paid players like Shaun Johnson; the unwanted injury absences of Matt Moylan and Josh Dugan; and the exits of two known performers in Paul Gallen (retired) and Matt Prior (released to Super League).

And while all the juggling of who-will-play-where goes on, another proven performer in NSW Origin centre Josh Morris could be on the way out so he can (a) join his brother at the Roosters and (b) relieve salary cap pressure at the Sharks.

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The distraction is palpable considering Graham himself can't name the back five to play against the Rabbitohs in round one on March 14 at ANZ Stadium.

"There's still a bit to get through in the next couple of weeks, still a few positions up for grabs," Graham told NRL.com at the Fox League season launch.

"We need Bronson (Xerri) to get cleared from his shoulder. We need Moys (Moylan) to get cleared and Duges (Dugan) as well (from hamstring, calf, knee injuries).

"At the moment I'd say nothing is locked in until we get into game week and see how the boys are travelling."

Graham praises Sharks' stance on Morris

Every club has off-season surgeries and disruptions. But the Sharks seem to be more top-heavy than most right now.

"To be honest I'm not paying attention to what anyone says on the outside about us," Graham said.

"I've been around the game long enough to know that the only opinions that matter are within our four walls.

"I'm right among how the team trains each week, how they perform in our drills and sets.

"It is our expectation to play finals this year and have a successful season.

"We've worked hard over a number of years to become a club that expects to play finals footy. We've got a roster more than capable enough to play finals footy."

Cronulla have indeed been September regulars recently – seven of the past eight years (the exception being 2014) the Sharks have played finals, including winning the premiership in 2016.

You only need to look at how the Sharks went about business in the NRL trial win over Manly to see how well things may go this year.

Will Kennedy at fullback, Connor Watson as a utility, forwards Toby Rudolf, Jack Williams, Billy Magoulis and Franklin Pele all brought the small Netstrata Jubilee Stadium crowd to their feet.

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The Sharks won 28-16 and Johnson, Dugan, Moylan and Bronson Xerri were unsighted.

The Sharks also haven't got a home this year with the Leagues Club being pulled down to create a new club and retail complex. All Sharks 'home' games will be at the Dragons' ground at Kogarah.  

"We understand why they're doing it as a playing group. And we still train at Shark Park so we can see all the work going on at the Leagues club. It's an exciting time," Graham said.

"You look at Parramatta playing at ANZ Stadium for two years but they came back to Bankwest Stadium, while the Roosters are playing out of the SCG until their new ground is ready.

"So we're not the only club having to go through this. The players, members and fans get a brand new leagues club and centre of excellence when it's all done.

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"We're moving toward that goal and in the meantime we're happy to play out of Kogarah."

The coach is usually the one everyone points to if a season doesn't get underway with a bang.

Graham says John Morris – in just his second year at the NRL helm after taking over in December 2018 when Flanagan was stood down – is much respected and admired by the players.

"I think he was underrated on how well he handled his first year. Not only did he come in as head coach a bit late – halfway through the pre-season – he was faced with the adversity of a huge injury toll," Graham said.

"He made some big decisions in debuting six or seven youngsters and not one of those guys let us down.

"He's been wonderful this pre-season – his first full one that he's been able to plan the way he wants. He's starting to shape the team the way he wants it."