LONG before a ball was kicked in the 2018 NRL season, Cronulla captain Paul Gallen delivered a public appraisal that any self-respecting opponent would have considered insulting.
“In my opinion, Newcastle are two or three years away from being a consistent top eight side,” Gallen wrote in a column on sportingnews.com website last November, after Mitchell Pearce chose to sign for the Knights, rather than the Sharks. “As for winning competitions, well, I just can’t see that happening for a long, long time ... I fear Mitch’s rep career may be a casualty of having to do it all at club level.”
After Cronulla’s 48-10 shellacking of Newcastle at Beanie for Brain Cancer Stadium on Sunday, only the most one-eyed and parochial of Novocastrians would feel inclined to argue with the veteran enforcer.
Gallen’s disdain for Newcastle has been something of a recurring trend in recent seasons, and it is certainly not unfounded.
The Sharks have now beaten the Knights in seven successive games by a combined scoreline of 243 to 84, or 34-12 on average.
For Newcastle, Sunday’s rout was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
After three consecutive losses, and depleted by the absence of injured stars Mitchell Pearce, Brock Lamb, Jacob Saifiti and Tautau Moga, they encountered a Cronulla team full of confidence after five successive wins.
The Sharks were without inspirational prop Andrew Fifita, who opted to rest a problematic knee, but his unavailability was offset by the return of international back-rowers Luke Lewis and Wade Graham.
Newcastle’s best hope was to start strongly and tap into the energy of a 20,913-strong crowd.
Instead they conceded two soft tries in the opening 11 minutes, setting the tone for what was to come.
Even when Newcastle hit back through back-rower Lachlan Fitzgibbon, who scored his sixth try of the season to make it 16-6, their revival was short-lived.
A few minutes later, the Sharks responded with a try by fullback Josh Dugan and their 22-6 half-time lead always appeared above and beyond anything the home team was likely to muster.
The second half was little more than a training run for the visitors, allowing five-eighth Matt Moylan to showcase his skill set.
A half-century eluded them only because halfback Chad Townsend missed with four of his conversion attempts.
The post-match press conferences were a study in contrast.
Gallen and Sharks coach Shane Flanagan wore the look of men who plan on being heavily involved at the business end of proceedings, and know what it takes to get there.
Knights coach Nathan Brown and captain Aidan Guerra looked like men under pressure trying to stay positive, as a season that started promisingly hangs in the balance.
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