Cronulla on track to defend title

Cronulla’s prem­iership defence is back on track heading into the final two months of the competition, claims halfback Chad Townsend.

Fresh off their second bye, the Sharks are ready to launch their title assault. And after dismantling the Sydney Roosters 44-12 a fortnight ago, Townsend believes his teammates have rediscovered their recipe for success.

“We completed our first 22 sets of the game and for us that’s unheard of,” Townsend said. “For us to hold the ball and really get to our kicks every time and put pressure on our opposition to come out of their own end puts us in good stead. That’s probably our blueprint.”

Townsend said his side’s embarrassing 35-18 loss to Manly in the post-Origin round the week previous was responsible for the turnaround. It marked the eighth time this season the Sharks have made 14 or more errors, while they also trailed at halftime for the seventh consecutive game.

“We probably got a little bit too comfortable with the way we were going about our business,” Townsend said. “Everyone addressed that we needed to change something, we couldn’t just keep cruising the way we were doing.”

Sitting second and two points behind leaders Melbourne, Cronulla’s next month of opponents features four teams all out of the top eight.

However, they face something of a bogy team — Gold Coast — this week. The Titans have beaten the Sharks this season and ended their winning run in the corresponding game last year with an 18-18 draw.

Returning hooker James Segeyaro will face a fitness test before the clash, to see if he is ready to return from a broken arm.

The Sharks will take an extended squad north, after coach Shane Flanagan suggested last month he was likely to rest his Origin stars in the post-representative round after their lacklustre performance against Manly.

“We’ve had a fair few struggles against the Titans over the past couple of years,” forward Chris Heighington said. “They’re a big, enthusiastic team. We’ve got our benchmark now and hopefully we can build off that.”

With Heighington eager to re-sign with the club, Cronulla could become the first in the NRL era to field a team with three players aged 35 or over next season.

Following in the footsteps of senior teammates Luke Lewis and Paul Gallen, Heighington confirmed yesterday he would not retire at the end of the year and wanted to stay at the Sharks.

“We’re talking to the club at the moment. I’m pretty keen to play on,” he said. “While I’m playing all right and doing my bit for the team, I still want to play.”

Cronulla have the two oldest players in the competition in Heighington and Gallen.

The Sharks’ captain will turn 37 in August next year but has a 12-month extension on the way.

Lewis is the ninth-oldest in the league but signed a new one-year contract last week to keep him at Cronulla after his 35th birthday — also next August.

Heighington will be 36 in January, but said if Flanagan considers a third veteran one too many, he’ll move elsewhere to keep playing.

“I love playing and my body’s feeling good and not many injuries,” he said. “We’ll have to wait and see.”

Cronulla players say they would welcome Cooper Cronk to the NRL club with open arms, despite their heated rivalry with Melbourne. Cronk is yet to confirm if he will play on next year, after he announced earlier this season he would be leaving the Storm and moving to Sydney.

Flanagan admitted this week he was still speaking with the star halfback’s manager over a potential move that could see James Maloney leave the premiers.

While the Sharks players are steadfast in their support of Maloney, they insist they would have no issue welcoming one of their archrivals as a teammate. “We’ve got Josh Dugan coming here from the Dragons next year and we have a pretty big rivalry against St George Illawarra,” Townsend said. “I think once that stuff happens, the rivalry goes out the door.”