Sharks still on the hunt for NRL glory

Wade Graham believed Cronulla still have enough talent to compete for the NRL premiership.
Wade Graham believed Cronulla still have enough talent to compete for the NRL premiership.

Cronulla are without Paul Gallen for the first time in two decades but skipper Wade Graham is backing a former Kangaroos star to fill the void during the 2020 NRL season.

Graham admits Gallen's absence leaves an enormous hole at the Sharks in their final year of salary cap sanctions for breaches, but he's backed the resurgence of Aaron Woods.

Cronulla have lost Gallen (retirement), Matt Prior (Leeds), Kurt Capewell (Penrith) and Jayden Brailey (Newcastle) out of their best 17, while the tight cap meant they only signed Jesse Ramien.

Woods played 18 times for Australia and 14 games for NSW between 2013 and 2017 but the 28-year-old prop has spent the past two seasons coming off the Sharks bench.

However, with a full pre-season under his belt for the first time in years, Graham believes Woods can replace Gallen as the enforcer in the pack alongside Andrew Fifita.

"Gal is an icon of the club and played over 300 games so it's a massive loss and really the end of an era," Graham told AAP.

"Woodsy has had a great pre-season, it's probably the biggest he's had for a long while.

"He was back before Christmas and hasn't missed many sessions, he's looking really good.

"Fifita has a chronic knee problem, so he's being managed, but working really hard to make sure he's getting the miles in the legs so he's ready to go come round one."

There have been several distractions at Cronulla recently with Josh Dugan suffering a mystery injury and Josh Morris being denied a release to join Sydney Roosters.

The season-opening side remains a mystery, especially in the outside backs with fullback Matt Moylan still nursing a hamstring injury.

Teenage sensation Bronson Xerri has a centre spot locked up and the return of Ramien could see Morris moved to fullback and Dugan even playing NSW Cup.

"Bronson can really be a player who lights the NRL up for a number of years," Graham said.

"Josh has played his whole career at a high level; club, state or country.

"So he has his own expectations whenever he goes on that field and I have no doubt he'll be looking to play his best."

Graham backed Billy Magoulias and Jack Williams to share the role of replacing Gallen, Woods to start for Prior and Brailey to be replaced by his younger brother Blayke.

The Sharks finished seventh last year and have played finals for the past five seasons but Graham said the bar will be raised again in 2020.

"We definitely feel like we're a top-four team, we were disappointed with how we went out last year," he said.

'We really didn't get much consistency in our whole season and then when we looked like we were just on the verge of finding our football we just couldn't capitalise.

"It was a frustrating year. Our expectations are definitely higher this year."

CRONULLA

Finishes over the past three seasons: 2019 - 7th, 2018 - 4th, 2017 - 5th

Coach: Josh Morris

Captain: Wade Graham

Key gains: Jesse Ramien (Knights)

Key losses: Paul Gallen (retirement), Matt Prior (Leeds), Kurt Capewell (Penrith), Jayden Brailey (Newcastle)

Best team: 1. Matt Moylan, 2. Josh Morris, 3. Bronson Xerri, 4. Jesse Ramien, 5. Josh Dugan, 6. Shaun Johnson, 7. Chad Townsend, 8. Andrew Fifita, 9. Blayke Brailey, 10. Aaron Woods, 11. Briton Nikora, 12. Wade Graham, 13. Jack Williams. Bench: 14. Jayson Bukuya, 15. Billy Magoulias, 16. Scott Sorensen, 17. Braden Hamlin-Uele.

Predicted finish: 11th

Australian Associated Press