WHEN the Sharks players put aside the spotlight of the ASADA investigation to record an emotional 12-10 win against the Titans in round one, plenty of experts believed the boys from Cronulla had no chance of going on to play finals footy.
At one point it seemed as many as 13 players at the club were prepared to accept a six-month ban, rather than take on the ASADA investigators and risk two years out of the game.
Fast forward six months, and while the investigation is yet to be completed, the Sharks players are not only still free to play, they are preparing to take on the Cowboys in tomorrow's elimination final at Allianz Stadium.
After extending his contract to the end of 2014 yesterday, hooker John Morris told nrl.com.au it had been an enormous relief to make the finals, but the team would not be satisfied with a loss in week one.
"For obvious reasons it has been a tough year, but it's been a rewarding one too," he said. "No-one thought we'd do any good this year and we've proved a few people wrong and showed the type of character and the bond that exists within this club. But the job's not done yet - we've put ourselves in the picture and given ourselves a chance to have a crack at it, but the real business starts on Saturday afternoon.
"There's a sense of belief in our ability this year. We know we've proven to ourselves when we play our best it's good enough against the best teams and we've proven that with a couple of good victories over the top-placed teams."
Those wins included a 12-10 victory against the Rabbitohs in round 11, and a 32-22 triumph over the Roosters in round 24 in one of the most brutal games of the season.
The Sharks and Cowboys have met twice this season, with the men from north Queensland prevailing on both occasions.
The Cowboys won 24-4 in Townsville in round 16, and repeated the dose at Remondis Stadium just two weeks ago with a 31-18 victory.
Importantly, star playmaker Todd Carney was a late withdrawal from Cronulla's side that day and has not played since because of a troublesome hamstring.
The Sharks were bundled out of the first week of the play-offs by Canberra last year, with Carney's game over early after rupturing an Achilles.
Earlier this week he said he would make a decision on his availability after a training run today.
"I was talking about it to my mum the other day and she said that I always seemed to be busted at this time of year," Carney said.
While Carney's creativity has been crucial for the Sharks, Morris also paid tribute to the work done by a forward pack that includes skipper Paul Gallen, fellow Blues Origin stars Luke
Lewis and Andrew Fifita, Chris Heighington, Anthony Tupou and Ben Ross.
"I've got to be one of the luckiest hookers in the comp to play with those sort of blokes," Morris said.
"They're so strong and they love rolling their sleeves up and doing the dirty work.
"That's definitely our strength and we definitely play our best footy when blokes like them are going forward with the footy up the middle of the park."
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