If you ever needed a sign of how important Paul Gallen and Todd Carney are to the Sharks' play-off aspirations, you only needed to see their collective performances against the Warriors in Auckland yesterday.
The pair were simply sublime in the Sharks record defeat of their hosts, whose inexperienced side struggled to deal with the threat both posed throughout.
Gallen, who has only played one game for the Sharks since round nine due to knee and abdominal injuries, made a barnstorming return with 20 runs for 195 metres, four tackle breaks and three offloads in the seven-try rout.
Carney was just as good, if not better, bagging two tries while slotting a perfect eight from eight kicks, and nailing a first-half field goal.
Centre Colin Best, also a standout for the Sharks at Mt Smart Stadium, praised the impact the NSW representatives make for the team.
"That's probably the best side we've had for probably a month," he said. "Obviously with those guys back in the side, it just gives our team confidence. Not only are they quality players and they're going to be better for the team, but they lift everyone around them."
The Sharks have slumped without the duo's presence in recent weeks, but have sent a strong message to the rest of the NRL with the dominant performance yesterday.
Coach Shane Flanagan was especially impressed with the effort of his skipper, who managed 70 minutes on the paddock.
"I was thinking I had to bring Gal off in the first half about the 30-minute mark," Flanagan said. "We've got blokes like Anthony Tupou and Jeremy [Smith] who need a spell as well as my two front-rowers. So we had a bit of a juggling act with our interchange. For Gal to be able to pump out 70 minutes without really running over the last six to seven weeks since Origin is something special."
The NSW skipper admitted he might ease back into things over the next few weeks, depending on the way games unfold. But expect a full bill of health from Gallen once finals footy arrives.
"We'll see how I go," Gallen said. "Maybe with a game that's a bit more of an arm wrestle and we don't score so many tries, I might have to come off. But after a week or two, I should be fully fit again. Hopefully we'll win another couple of games and we get in the semis, and I'll be able to play 80 minutes as usual."
In addition to his praise of Gallen and Carney, Flanagan also issued a fiery attack at rumours surrounding his talented five-eighth.
Flanagan said constant rumours regarding Carney's alleged drug use were "scandalous". "There's been a lot of speculation and rumour going on about Todd in the last six weeks since Origin and it's been totally unfair," he said. "It's been incorrect and the rumours have been scandalous and gone on for six weeks. The way Todd played today, to score two tries and to kick those goals, and some pressure goals, is a credit to his mental toughness and his attitude."
The Sharks have further reinforcements on the way, with back-rower Wade Graham expected to play against Newcastle next week.
CRONULLA 45 (T Carney 2 A Fifita 2 J Williams 2 J Robson tries T Carney 8 goals T Carney field goal) bt WARRIORS 4 (B Tupou try) at Mt Smart Stadium. Referee: Tony Archer, Alan Shortall. Crowd: 13,812.