NRL 2017: Cronulla Sharks Valentine Holmes v Ben Barba 2016 season, stats, comparison

A LOT of the focus on Cronulla heading into premiership defence campaign was how they’d cover the loss of hooker Michael Ennis.

But another huge departure was livewire fullback Ben Barba.

Young gun Valentine Holmes, 22, has assumed the No.1 jersey this season and has done an admirable job considering it’s his first season playing the custodian role on a full-time basis.

Foxsports.com.au sat down with Fox Sports Lab and former NRL coach Matthew Elliott to discuss the differences between Barba and Holmes, and how the Sharks are coping with the change.

DO THEY MISS BARBA?

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CAMERON Smith is on track for a Dally M Medal at 34, and if you believe Matthew Johns and other good judges, he could play on into his 40s.

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Paul Gallen is coming off a vintage performance where he ran 26 times for 239 metres and has just signed a one-year extension with the Sharks. He’ll be 37 by the time that deal comes to an end but that doesn’t mean it will be his last.

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Luke Lewis is in career-best form having just clocked up his 300th NRL game. He’s going around again next year and will be 35 by the time the season finishes.

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That’s just the tip of an iceberg filled with veterans that seems to be swelling by the year at NRL level at a time when old is new again.

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Turning 30 is taboo no longer.

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A big reason for that is the increasing role of sports science at the professional level. It’s always been the case that veterans play smarter and in modern times their bodies can still do what their brain wants it to for longer. Much longer.

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Live stream the 2017 NRL Telstra Premiership on FOX SPORTS. Get your free 2-week FOXTEL NOW trial and start watching in minutes. SIGN UP NOW!

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It can create problems, however, when respected older players want to play on as a young star is emerging in his position. The club has to weigh the respect it has for an ageing champion against regenerating a roster, potentially shortening the road to its next premiership.

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In the AFL, the young buck almost always wins out, however that’s far less often the case in the NRL and Ben Ikin says that’s the way it should be within a transfer system that allows such fluid movement of players.

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Using Cronulla’s looming decision on whether or not to extend the career of Chris Heighington as an example, Ikin told the Fox Sports Market Watch podcast he would happily watch a talented youngster leave to give the 34-year-old one more year.

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Ben Ikin, Nathan Ryan and Ben Glover are joined by Sharks coach Shane Flanagan to talk about some key re-signings and why age no longer matters in roster management.

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You can also subscribe via iTunes or for Android users, listen on the iPP Podcast Player app.

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“I would say if you’re really keen on the younger guy (when it comes down to a 50/50 call with a veteran), tell the kid to go and field some offers, but we feel it’s important to pay the respect to Chris Heighington, because that also sends a message to the young player that you value the people who have given great service to the club,” Ikin said.

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“Let’s talk in three months. Go out and just sign a one-year contract, play some NRL football elsewhere, and then because ‘I’m a massive fan, let’s catch up for a cup of coffee and find a way to get you back here’.

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“And if it’s not this young, up and coming back-rower who you think ends up filling the space left by Chris Heighington, I can just about guarantee there’d be four to six backrowers of the same quality somewhere in the game, that you could make an offer to three months down the track.”

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For many fans it would be a controversial view, but Ikin gives very little weight to the importance of bringing juniors from a club’s development system into the NRL side.

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Traditionally it has been a source of pride to field a homegrown first grade side but Ikin sees that as old fashioned and potentially a hindrance to success.

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“I think in rugby league your goal as a coach and as a senior recruitment manager is to maintain a list that is going to be a good chance to finish top-four every year,” Ikin said.

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“Unless you’ve taken a view like Newcastle that you need to recruit local juniors to better engage with the local community, or you’re restricted money-wise.

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“But if you’ve got the money, and you’re smart enough, you can manage your list so you’ve got an experienced, talented squad every year.”

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He uses the rise to prominence over the last two seasons of Ash Taylor as the best example of the benefits of the NRL’s current transfer system.

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The Broncos let him go to the Titans with a year still to run on his contract but he could easily end up back in Brisbane for the 2019 season after developing into an elite playmaker.

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That would never happen in the AFL because clubs need to stockpile all of their best young talent due to the restrictive nature of their draft and trade governed transfer system.

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“He’s gone to the Gold Coast Titans, he picked up Rookie of the Year, and let’s be frank, there is every chance at the end of his three years (his current contract runs out at the end of 2018) at the Gold Coast Titans, he could end up back at the Brisbane Broncos,” Ikin said.

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“That’s how our market works.

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“So while you may have a young playmaker, or a young player in any position, not being able to crack first grade — Connor Watson’s a good example at the Roosters, who’s to say Nick Politis hasn’t told him on the way out ‘you can come back once you’ve done your time at the Knights’.”

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In other words, young unproven players — other than the absolute superstars of their generation — are expendable and older, wiser heads are a commodity to be valued because of the way they can instil culture into an organisation.

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Bring on the age of enlightenment.

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