Sharks can go back-to-back, says Ennis

They may have spluttered into the NRL finals but Michael Ennis predicts Cronulla are about to find another gear and are poised to pull off a premiership boilover.

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The Sharks must do it the hard way if they’re to be the first team in 24 years to win back-to-back titles after finishing fifth.

Not only is every game do-or-die, the black, white and blue are swimming against the tide of history with no team in the NRL era (since 1998) having come from outside the top four to win the grand final.

While Shane Flanagan’s men are widely considered one of the few teams capable of beating runaway pacesetters Melbourne, they must find form quickly.

The Sharks looked far from convincing in the closing rounds, winning just two of their last five, failing to win consecutive matches since round 21 and being pushed all the way by wooden-spooners Newcastle last week.

But Ennis, who was a part of the Sharks’ drought-breaking title win last year, said Jack Bird (shoulder) and Wade Graham (leg) shape as game-changers ahead of Sunday’s elimination final with North Queensland.

“Bird and Graham are huge inclusions,” Ennis said at the Fox League finals launch.

“Having those guys on the park, the Sharks play that semi-final-type football.

“I’ve got a feeling they are about to put the foot down. Sunday is huge in terms of building some real confidence.”

Also important, Ennis says, is the fact they have fallen on the softer side of the draw.

Should they beat the Cowboys, they would not be drawn to meet the Storm until the grand final – unless Parramatta can spring an upset against the minor premiers on Saturday.

“They’ve fallen on a good side of the draw. They are healthy. They get Bird and Graham back, they play the Cowboys at home,” Ennis said.

“We saw what that did for the Sharks last year. The Cowboys are depleted. They’ve been gallant with the injuries they’ve faced but Paul Green has done a tremendous job, I would imagine the Sharks would win that.

“Then they will face the loser of the Melbourne and Parramatta game and they have had success against both those sides in the regular season.

“I certainly think with their experience that they are well in contention to go back-to-back. “

No regrets staying with Cowboys: Taumalolo

Two years ago Jason Taumalolo very nearly became a Cronulla Shark.

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But the North Queensland enforcer has no regrets sticking with the Cowboys despite their dire plight ahead of Sunday’s NRL elimination final with his former suitors Cronulla.

Taumalolo was reminded of just how close he came to joining this weekend’s foes after Sharks captain Paul Gallen chewed his ear at the 2015 All Stars game.

“At the time I was (close),” Taumalolo agreed.

“I was still young and weighing up my options.

“I didn’t think Gal would be playing too much longer but the way he has been showing us young boys how to play, he’s still one of the big boys.”

However, Taumalolo said he did not wonder what might have been despite the Sharks’ success.

The NRL’s oldest player Gallen – who turned 36 last month – has found another gear to ensure the defending premiers are overwhelming favourites against the depleted Cowboys.

Reeling from an injury list that ballooned out to 12 players three weeks ago, North Queensland had to rely on other results to scrape into the top eight.

“I think the boys around me made my decision easy,” Taumalolo said of staying at North Queensland.

“I had the respect of my teammates and the coaching staff and I had it for them so that made my choice easier.

“And I love living in north Queensland and that won’t change any time soon.”

Taumalolo is on a collision course with Gallen on Sunday after amassing the most total run metres (4243m) and averaging the most metres per game (192.9m) this season.

But Taumalolo scoffed at the suggestion he was carrying the Cowboys’ finals hopes.

“We are not a one-man team,” he said.

“We have strike weapons right across the park, hopefully on Sunday they all fire.”

Problems linger as Australia dodge defeat

Relieved after Australia dodged a humbling series defeat to Bangladesh, skipper Steve Smith says his side must address their constant batting collapses or risk losing the Ashes.

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Australia escaped from their first visit to Bangladesh in 11 years with a 1-1 series draw, winning the second Test in Chittagong by seven wickets after losing in Dhaka by 20 runs.

Set a target of 86 runs to win after bowling out Bangladesh for 157 in their second innings, Australia needed just 16 overs to claim victory on Thursday with a day to spare.

Much of the credit will rightly go to man of the match Nathan Lyon, who became the first Australian to take 13 wickets in a Test in Asia.

Lyon’s 6-60 in the second innings took his wicket tally for the tour to 22, just one shy of Sri Lankan tweaker Rangana Herath’s record for the most dismissals in a two-match Test series.

He shared man of the series honours with David Warner, who backed up his drought-breaking triumph in Dhaka with a gutsy century in stifling heat during Australia’s first innings.

Recalled spinner Ashton Agar and electrifying quick Pat Cummins were also impressive, showing the fortitude necessary for them to forge long Test careers for Australia.

But while Bangladesh proved to be tougher opponents than their No.9 ranking would suggest, Lyon and Warner’s heroics helped to obscure some deep-rooted issues.

Australia undid the good work of their bowlers with dismal batting collapses in both Tests, and Smith admitted it was an issue they desperately needed to address.

“We would have much preferred 2-0 but it’s nice to get over the line here and have a 1-1 draw,” Smith said.

“I still think we have a lot of improvement in us. We probably let ourselves down at times throughout this Test match.

“I thought our first-innings bowling was very good to restrict them. Our first-innings batting, obviously the partnership between (Peter Handscomb) and Davey was fantastic.

“And then we got ourselves into one of our collapses that we’ve had.

“I think we’ve had 15 collapses in our last 14 games … that’s not good enough for an Australian cricket team.

“That’s something we really need to work on. We need to rectify that come the next series and the Ashes.”

Warner, Smith and Handscomb were the only Australians to make 50s during the series but Smith suggested Australia’s batting problems were largely above the shoulders.

“I’d say that probably 95 per cent of batting is mental and decision-making,” Smith said.

“I don’t think it’s technical a lot of the time. Guys just have to make better decisions consistently and hopefully be able to build some partnerships in the middle.

“You have to find ways to work with your partner out there, get another partnership going and stop the rut as such.”

GWS beaten, not broken by AFL loss: coach

Greater Western Sydney coach Leon Cameron saw enough in his side’s second-half fightback against Adelaide to suggest the Giants’ premiership dream is still alive.

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The rampant Crows kicked 5.3 to 0.1 in the second quarter at Adelaide Oval in a 12.12 (84) to 6.12 (48) qualifying final win on Thursday night.

GWS managed just one goal in the first half and now face a cut-throat semi-final against the winner of Saturday night’s elimination clash between Port Adelaide and West Coast.

“They’re a super side, they finished top for a reason and they’re hard to beat here, but I’d just love to have our time over again in that second quarter,” Cameron said.

“But we finished top four for a reason, we get a second chance, and we’ll bounce back.

“I couldn’t sit here and say that we’d bounce back if we had a really poor second half.

“But I was pleased with the second half … I think there’s a lot of light at the end of the tunnel for us.”

The Giants will be without star forward Jeremy Cameron for the Spotless Stadium encounter after he left the game in the second quarter with a hamstring injury.

Cameron missed four matches with hamstring problems in the second half of the season and could struggle to feature again this year.

“It’s his other hammy, it’s not the one that he had a few weeks ago, but we’ll scan it and see where it’s at,” Cameron said.

“It’s disappointing because his back half of the year with those hamstrings have worried him a bit.

“As disappointing as it is to lose one tonight there will be opportunities for boys to plead their case.”

Cameron also forecast more changes to the team, with Steve Johnson and Ryan Griffen to feature in a scratch match against Adelaide’s reserves on Friday.

Crows have unique AFL bond: coach Pyke

The death of Phil Walsh has given AFL flag favourites Adelaide a unique bond, Crows coach Don Pyke says.

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The Crows flew into a home preliminary final with a 36-point drubbing of Greater Western Sydney in Thursday night’s qualifying final.

Pyke is in his second season as Adelaide coach, appointed after the killing of Walsh, who was stabbed to death by son Cy in July 2015.

Cy Walsh was found not guilty by reason of mental incompetence of murdering his father, who was in his first season as Adelaide coach.

“Our group has been through something really unique,” Pyke said after Adelaide’s 12.12 (84) to 6.12 (48) thrashing of GWS.

“Obviously the passing of the previous coach in Phil Walsh has challenged them. It’s an unprecedented event and these guys have gone through that.

“And often loss is an opportunity for growth.

“So they have got something unique as a group and that is good to be able to work with that because the guys now have a sense of each other.”

Pyke said his players’ “genuine care” for each other was evidenced in their reaction to stalwarts Sam Jacobs and Brodie Smith on Thursday night.

Smith is expected to require a knee reconstruction and be denied a shot at a premiership after being hurt just over 10 minutes into the match.

Jacobs fronted despite still grieving the death of his 31-year-old brother last week from an undisclosed illness.

“It’s never easy when a player is dealing with a tragedy in his family,” Pyke said of Jacobs.

“It was always going to be difficult, to be honest, for Sam. And that is a credit to him that he is able to come in and perform the way he did under those circumstances.

“His commitment to being a professional player and also his commitment to the team, that he didn’t want to let them down.

“You could see that afterwards each player and coaching staff were super-proud of Sam and what he was able to do, but at the same time sad for Sam as well.

“He has lost his brother and the result, as happy as we all are, we’re still sad in our hearts for Sam.”