Cronulla are set to launch a mid-season assault on the NRL as they prepare for their lightest representative strain in three years.
The Sharks confirmed their status as one of the form teams of the competition on Sunday, climbing into the NRL’s top four with a sixth straight win in their 48-10 mauling of Newcastle.
What’s more threatening for the rest of the NRL is what lays ahead.
They will likely lose one player at most to State of Origin in Valentine Holmes, a far cry from the five who played in last year’s series decider in Brisbane.
With Andrew Fifita likely to be back from a knee injury and Luke Lewis and Wade Graham now fit, they’ll face a South Sydney side in next week’s Origin-affected round who will likely be without stars Greg Inglis and Damien Cook.
After upcoming clashes with the Wests Tigers and Brisbane, they also have the benefit of playing the Warriors in the round immediately after the Denver Test where coach Stephen Kearney has already confirmed he will rest his Kiwi stars.
“I prefer my players playing Origin because that’s what it’s about, playing in those big rep games,” Sharks coach Shane Flanagan said.
“But obviously with Gal and Lewie (Luke Lewis) retired, Andrew choosing Tonga, and some of the other boys not in it because of injury if they don’t get picked.
“I’m not quite sure but if Duges (Josh Dugan) and Wade Graham and Matty Moylan will probably be looked at at some point … there’s three games there, so let’s just keep chipping away.”
Even if the rest of the Sharks stars are picked for later games, they are unlikely to miss any matches for Cronulla while away on NSW duty given their round 17 bye.
Cronulla now sit in fourth, with Penrith in first on percentages after ending St George Illawarra’s 11-week run at the top with their 26-point defeat of the Dragons on Saturday.
Souths are third after they bumped the Warriors down to fifth with their win in Auckland, while Melbourne are sixth after their defeat of North Queensland.
The Sydney Roosters and Wests Tigers round out the eight, the latter having kept their spot in the top half of the ladder over the opening 12 rounds after they beat Canterbury 14-10 on Sunday.
Meanwhile the Bulldogs’ loss all but ended their finals hopes, stuck down the bottom of the ladder with the Cowboys and Parramatta – who lost to Brisbane on Thursday night.
Manly and the Gold Coast’s seasons are also hanging by a thread with just four wins from the opening half of the season, after they dropped games to Canberra and the Sydney Roosters respectively this weekend.