MICHAEL Ennis says his one-time premiership teammate James Maloney can set aside off-field distractions and lead Cronulla to the big dance again.
Maloney's own form has been indifferent over the course of 2017, after leading the Sharks to a drought-breaking title a year ago for Ennis' NRL swansong.
The crafty five-eighth has found the media spotlight constantly this year.
He's been the face of a public spat between the Rugby League Players Association and the governing body over a new collective bargaining agreement, which is yet to be finalised.
On top of that he's been bombarded with speculation over his playing future, fuelled by his own ultimatum to the Sharks to upgrade his contract.
On Wednesday he laughed off the rumour he is being shopped to Penrith in a possible player swap with Matt Moylan.
Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan told Fairfax Media this week young gun Jack Bird had been distracted from football by his own contract situation earlier in the season.
And Ennis admits the extra issues on Maloney's plate have most likely contributed to his drop in form.
"I don't think he would let it (distract him), but sometimes the weight of it can take a toll on you without knowing," Ennis said at the launch of Fox League finals on Thursday.
"The game is hard enough these days week to week without having other distractions.
"I think he'll be relieved that he can just get back to playing footy for the next month."
And while Maloney may have been swamped by off-field drama in recent times, Ennis is confident the playmaker has enough experience to be able to flick the switch and concentrate fully on the upcoming finals series.
Maloney is widely regarded as one of those "big-game players" that commentators love to wax lyrical about come Origin or grand final time.
And Ennis says it's Maloney who holds the key to Cronulla's premiership defence.
"I think your playmakers always come under the microscope, and the side probably has been inconsistent at times and that's reflected in Jimmy's performance," Ennis said.
"James would be the first to admit that's been the case at different times, but he is a huge key to if they have success this year.
"We saw his finals last year, him and Luke Lewis, from the game we went to Canberra right through to the grand final siren, they were incredible.
"He's a big-game player, James, and if I was heading into a finals series with him at five-eighth in my side I'd be confident we could get something done.
"He's obviously had a microscope on him this year, around his contract and around the RLPA stuff and around Origin, so it's been a big year for James.
"I think he would be pretty comfortable now with three or four weeks ahead that he can get back to doing what he does.
"He's just a footy player, that's what he loves to do and the Sharks need him at his best for 80 minutes for that team to win a comp."
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