A couple of weeks ago, the oldest player at the Sharks walked into the gym, loaded 225 kilograms of plates onto a barbell and busted out a deadlift – three times.
“I broke one of the [club] records for the deadlift,” Paul Gallen, 35, says with a smile and fairly strong hint of pride. “Andrew Fifita went over and put another kilo on each side just to beat me.”
Gallen is entering his 17th NRL season. Surely, it will be his last season. Surely?
“I just don’t know,” Gallen said. “I had a really good pre-season. Flanno [Sharks coach Shane Flanagan] singled me out and said how I played at the weekend [in the loss in the World Club Challenge in England] and said in front of the whole team that I was outstanding, and that gave me confidence going into the year. I’ll see how the first six to 10 weeks pan out before I make a decision. It will feel weird not playing.”
Does that sound like a player ready to retire?
Gallen considered retirement after leading his side to their emotional breakthrough premiership with victory against Melbourne at ANZ Stadium.
The hangover eased a long time ago. Six weeks after the last bourbon and Coke – Gallen’s signature drink – went down, he and most of the squad were back on the training paddock.
But there are daily reminders of what that grand final victory meant, almost everywhere the Sharks players go.
“Even today, I was talking to a bloke on the way in here and he said, ‘I can live off that for 50 years’. People are still living off it,” Gallen said. “Even in London, and in the north of England, people were coming up and talking about it. It’s amazing to see how much it meant to a lot of people. It’s hard for the players because once we got over the initial joy of winning it, and the party, we were back at training and getting flogged. We go down to a cafe in the mall and people are still slapping us on the back. I won’t say it’s hard for us – we’re professional athletes – but you can still see what it did for the community, what that win meant. It was massive for the whole place.”
While no side has defended their title since the Broncos in 1992-93, most defending premiers are expected to be in the mix at the end of the following season, even those clubs who have just made history. Think the Dragons and Souths and even the Cowboys.
Cronulla are different. With hooker Michael Ennis retired, and fullback Ben Barba departing for French rugby, experts and bookies and armchair critics have run a line through their prospects for 2017 now that they’ve finally ended the longest running hoodoo in the game’s history. Some have said aloud they will be lucky to make the top eight.
“Our pre-season has been outstanding,” Gallen said. “And I don’t think the way we played in the World Club Challenge [which they lost to Wigan 22-6] was that bad. Our preparation leading into that game wasn’t great. I thought we dominated through the middle at times. We just didn’t make them pay, and that’s what Cronulla does. Sit there, repeat set after repeat set.”
When it comes to Barba, Gallen says he backs him.
The fullback tested positive to cocaine during grand final celebrations and was subsequently banned for 12 matches because of a second strike under the NRL’s illicit drugs policy.
He was sacked by Cronulla, went to rehab, re-signed by Cronulla, and then he walked out on Cronulla when he received a $2.5 million offer from French rugby powerhouse Toulon.
“I supported Benny,” Gallen said. “He tested positive to cocaine. I won’t get on my moral high horse and get up him for that, because the fact is, as much as people want to pretend it doesn’t happen, it happens.
“I don’t really have an issue with Benny [signing with Toulon]. If he had been tested in round one, 2017, he would’ve missed 12 games. The fact it happened a few games after the grand final, he was suspended from then. By the time he came back, it would have been a nine-month suspension. That’s three times what a normal suspension would be. They sacked him, he wasn’t getting paid, he’s got a mortgage, four girls … how could you blame him for earning $2.5 million for three years? You can’t blame him for that. I would love nothing more than for Cronulla to have the team we had last year, and add [new signings] Tony Williams and Sam Tagataese to the side. Suddenly, we’d be premiership favourites. But things changes and you move on.”
It was Tagataese who ended Gallen’s brief hold on the deadlift record, moving 227 kilograms three times.
“I just love competing every day at training,” Gallen said. “Chris Heighington and I are weights partners. He said, ‘All you have to do is train once a week, come in and beat them all in a wrestle, and go home and you’ll be satisfied’. He’s not far off the truth. Fifita likes to beat me in the wrestle, too, but he’s never got me in that one, either!”