Punters jumped off the Sharks as NRL premiers during their Round 14 match against the Raiders. For those that stayed on, there’s hope for a repeat of 2016.

Thursday Night Footy produced one of the strangest games we will see throughout the whole 2019 NRL season.

The Sharks came out and played one of the worst 25 minutes of rugby league anyone will have ever seen. Errors, penalties, soft defence and just an all-round lack of execution saw the Sharks give up a 20-0 headstart to the Raiders.

The cynics were out:

“Where have all of those people that said the Sharks were a smokey for the premiership gone?”

It wasn’t looking good for the Sharkies. Shaun Johnson’s return wasn’t the spark that would ignite their run towards the NRL Grand Final. The Roosters at $3.70, Rabbitohs at $4.60, Storm at $4.75 and Raiders at $13 looked the only backable options in the Premiership Winner market.

However, in a throwback to 2018, the Raiders folded like a deck-chair. It was their turn to concede 20 unanswered points in an equally poor 25-minute showing.

There they are, cynics!

Back in business and displaying all of the traits those bullish on their premiership chances expected, the Sharks avoided a total catastrophe to turn a potential embarrassment into a close-run 22-20 defeat in Canberra.

That $8 for the Sharks to lift the Provan-Summons trophy looks good again.

So, can they win it?

In a word: absolutely.

This team is a premiership contender on paper.

They’ve got a strong forward pack that excels on both sides of the ball. In Johnson, they have a top five half in the NRL while Chad Townsend might be the most under-appreciated half in the NRL. Wade Graham is returning to full-strength and will turn their left edge attack into one of the best in the competition. Once John Morris realises Bronson Xerri should be switched from the right to the left, he will improve as a player too.

Johnson manned the best right-side attack in the NRL at the Warriors last season. As he gets comfortable around his new teammates, and with Matt Moylan popping up on both sides in attack, the Sharks will be a threat with the ball in hand across the park.

There are plenty of reasons to be excited about the Sharks when looking down at the team list. However, there is one thing we need to see on the field before hailing them as specials.

Defence Wins NRL Premierships

The high-scoring teams receive all of the highlights and plaudits throughout the season, but it’s those that don’t concede points that are there until the end. A whopping 11 of the last 12 premiers have finished the NRL season inside the top three in defence.

Only the 2015 Cowboys failed to finish in the top three, and they finished 4th.

Conceding 19.6 points per game through 14 rounds, the Sharks are equal 7th in defence. There hasn’t been a premiership winner finish close to that low since the outlier 2005 Tigers who finished up 10th.

While the Sharks aren’t up there defensively just yet, there is hope. So much of an NRL defence relies on cohesion. On the edges, in particular. Considering Johnson and Graham have missed so much time, the wing spots chopping and changing every other week, and they’re blooding a rookie in the centres, the Sharks can be forgiven for not being at their defensive best yet.

They still have time, and so long as they remain healthy, the Sharks can get themselves into the top three of four defensive teams in the NRL by the end of the season.

From there, their current $8 is only going to become a better bet.