Straight Shot: It’s Time for the Sharks to Bite Back

Photo credit: Monica Toretto

Are the glory years behind the Southland Sharks? A run of three championships in the space of six seasons ended in 2018 and while there have been finals appearances since, the last two seasons have seen the Sharks sink with 12 wins against 24 losses. In his pre-season Straight Shot series, Sky Sport commentator Justin Nelson goes swimming with the Sharks.

I’m not sure missing the playoffs the last two seasons constitutes being ‘lost in the wild’ but when you’ve claimed silverware three times in your first nine years of existence and been a consistent front-runner for the best part of a decade, a slide is a slide.

After the Southland Sharks elected to sit out of the 2020 Sal’s NBL Showdown they bounced right back to reach the semi-finals in 2021 … nothing to see here, normality was restored.

However, 2022 and 2023 were anything but normal for the Sharks as performances went south (pardon the pun) and there was no sign of orange singlets in the finals. For the shark adverse, the Sal’s NBL waters were very safe to swim in.

And respectfully, things should have been easier in recent years, as unlike during their prolonged run of success we now have a Final 6 in the Sal’s NBL which affords two more finals spots for teams! Sorry to be the bearer of bad news to the Orange Army, but that just highlights the depths the mighty Sharks dropped to.

In 2022 the team battled a variety of injuries, including a nasty fall of a roof by coach Rob Beveridge, and they just didn’t nail their player recruitment, most notably the imports.

For much of season 2023 the Sharks looked a little better, but again a string of injuries and inconsistency weighed heavily on coach Guy Molloy and his thirst for an immediate re-entry into the playoffs. In particular, the performances by key players (save Jeremy Kendle) were mixed, at best.

So here we are, weeks out from season 2024 tipping off and the message to the Sharks is simple … it’s time to bite back!

For an organisation that has boasted so much success since joining the league in 2010, there should be no greater motivation this year than to get back into the playoffs.

Familiar faces are back – Alonzo Burton, Brayden Inger and Ben Hall to name a few. Incoming imports Josh Turner, Marcale Lotts and LaGerald Vick look a quality mix, while the signing of Callum McRae is clever and provides the Sharks with a genuine ‘footer’ to replace the retired Alex Pledger.

I’m comfortable with Dru-Leo Leusogi-Ape heading to the Bulls, his time in Invercargill just didn’t work out. It’s a win-win.

On paper this year’s crew look good, featuring athleticism with plenty of scoring punch. It also features some real ‘orange’ experience with Burton and Inger, two quality Kiwis who have been down south long enough to know how things tick. McRae is a quality rim protector and has nifty footwork. And I can’t wait to see Vick, he comes in with good pedigree, but like all imports he will need to adjust.

I expect the Sharks to be fiercely determined from tip-off, this will be a team that should (and must) hit the court with a massive chip on its shoulder. The last two seasons weren’t good enough, simply not up to standard. Own it and move on.

So, what do the Sharks need to get right to get back to playoffs? I could roll off a list of five or six things but will succinctly keep it to two.

The first is the players must get on the same page and bond, you know, form a brotherhood and ooze resilience in any situation, together. They need to have each other’s back. Alonzo Burton must lead the way. He’s the glue guy and he must make sure this roster sticks together through thick and thin.

The second is a sheer willingness to fight. Dare I say it, but at times over the last two seasons it felt like the Sharks couldn’t find the gas pedal and even when they did, not everyone was on the same bus. The Sharks of old built a fortress down south and it was a daunting place to visit. They were feared and that mantra must return in 2024. We must see fight!

The water has been way too safe the last two years and opposition teams have too often enjoyed a leisurely swim. That won’t continue this year as the waters are sure to be Shark infested once again, but will we be swimming with Gummy Sharks or with Great Whites?


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