After decades of being the punchline for jokes about not winning a premiership, Cronulla can set themselves up as a modern powerhouse if they return to the finals this season.
When they narrowly missed the finals last season, it was the first time since 2014 that they had finished among the also-rans. Only Melbourne, who have not missed the playoffs since their salary cap-sanctioned season of 2010, and the Roosters, once in nine years, have better records for finals qualification in recent years.
Cronulla have been able to reboot their 2016 title-winning roster relatively pain free over the past couple of seasons, with captain Wade Graham and bench prop the last remnants from the old republic.
And after Cronulla controversially cut ties with John Morris early last season, new coach Craig Fitzgibbon is walking into a club that’s again on the rise.
His arrival – after serving a lengthy apprenticeship at the Roosters and with NSW, waiting for the right opportunity – is the biggest change in the Sutherland Shire.
But he’s also joined by new recruits in Storm duo Dale Finucane and Nicho Hynes, Dragons skipper Cameron McInnes and Roosters winger Matt Ikuvalu.
The Sharks were able to open the purse strings after shedding salary cap dead weight by punting Josh Dugan, dissolving Bronson Xerri’s deal due to his drugs ban and re-signing Matt Moylan on a significantly reduced wage.
Cronulla’s roster regeneration over the past few years has been top shelf. They’ve farewelled the stars of their sweet ‘16 season and replaced them with young prospects that they’ve mostly developed from within.
Fullback Will Kennedy, wingers Ronaldo Mulitalo and Sione Katoa, centre Jesse Ramien, halfback Braydon Trindall, hooker Blayke Brailey and forwards Toby Rudolf, Briton Nikora and Braden Hamlin-Uele came through the ranks to debut at the Sharks or came to the club before breaking into the NRL.
The gamble on youth is about to pay off with those players entering the prime of their careers in a side boosted by the star recruits with Graham the link between the two eras providing standard-setting leadership in the “do as I say and do or you’ll look like a weak link” style that gets results in any elite sporting environment.
The Sharks also have the benefit of returning to their spiritual home with PointsBet Stadium’s redevelopment complete after two seasons in which the team used Kogarah as its home base.
Nobody could have foreseen the global events of the past couple of years but if you could have chosen when you had to play home games on the road, these two seasons with limited or often no crowds would have been the time to do it.
While the future looks rosy there are still a range of issues for Fitzgibbon to solve.
Graham’s ongoing concussion dramas last season cast doubt over the veteran international’s playing future.
Hynes, Trindall and Moylan have their eyes set on a starting halves gig but one of them will end up disappointed on the bench or in the NSW Cup.
Apart from the coach, the other main changes have also been significant – the addition of Storm duo Nicho Hynes and Dale Finucane, plus Dragons captain Cameron McInnes gives Cronulla three top-class recruits.
Ex-Roosters winger Matt Ikuvalu and rugby sevens speedster Lachlan Miller add to the depth out wide which was an issue last season while the departures of Shaun Johnson and Chad Townsend removes a lot of experience from their playmaking options but they have the halves options to cover for their absence.
Front-rower Aaron Woods has joined the Dragons while fellow veterans Josh Dugan and Will Chambers won’t be missed.
Star on the rise
Brayden Trindall could be a rough diamond for Cronulla – he’s had a couple of seasons to find his feet in the NRL and could develop into a long-term playmaker similar to Brisbane’s new No.7 Adam Reynolds was for Souths over the past decade. If Fitzgibbon puts him alongside a strong runner like Storm recruit Nicho Hynes in the halves, they could form a potent one-two punch long term.
Who’s under the pump
Matt Moylan had to eat a bit of humble pie and take a massive pay cut to earn another one-year deal at the Sharks – if he cannot overcome his ongoing soft-tissue injuries, it will be hard for Fitzgibbon to keep picking him in the first-choice 17.
They could rise to the fringe of the top four but probably lack the star power to take on the big dogs just yet. Their forward depth across the board is up there with the best packs in the NRL but they probably lack a dynamic scoring option or two out wide to be legitimate title contenders.
They were unlucky to miss the finals in the last round of 2021 which ultimately came down to their inability to upset higher-ranked opponents. If that trend continues and they can’t settle on a halves combination, the Sharks could again be watching the playoffs from afar next year but they shouldn’t sink anywhere near wooden spoon territory.
1. Will Kennedy
2. Sione Katoa
3. Connor Tracey
4. Jesse Ramien
5. Ronaldo Mulitalo
6. Nicho Hynes
7. Braydon Trindall
8. Toby Rudolf
9. Blayke Brailey
10. Dale Finucane
11. Siosifa Talakai
12. Wade Graham
13. Cameron McInnes
14. Matt Moylan
15. Braden Hamlin-Uele
16. Briton Nikora
17. Teig Wilton
Others: Jayden Berrell, Andrew Fifita, Mawene Hiroti, Royce Hunt, Matt Ikuvalu, Lachlan Miller, Luke Metcalf, Franklin Pele, Jensen Taumoepeau, Aiden Tolman, Jack Williams