BOOMFA! Was this really worth a penalty, though?
With the Finals over and the November 1 contract deadline passed, we can officially declare the NRL’s silly season open.
Into the morass of gossip and conjecture, we will bring sanity, with the relaunch of Smart Signings, our dissection of where clubs are weak, what they need to improve and where they might find it. Expect stats, profiles and insights, with options that are available and realistic. Don’t expect rumours.
Cronulla were, perhaps, doomed from the start in 2023 by how well they had gone in the regular season of 2022.
They had overachieved massively in Craig Fitzgibbon’s first year in charge – empowered more than a little by an ability to pick up maximum points against the bad teams and a draw that saw them, well, face a lot of the bad teams.
2023 wasn’t actually that much different. Fitzgibbon’s style is even more embedded and their results against weaker opposition remained excellent, but there were simply fewer weak teams around.
Going into 2024, the question will be whether they can evolve it to compete against the best or if they will continue to hit the same heights. The only loss is Wade Graham, who has retired, and there have been no new signings at all.
The recruitment is very much slanted towards cohesion. Since Fitzy took charge, the Sharks have been the most settled team in the comp, adding just one player between 2022 and 2023 and zero so far this off-season.
Last year, only two of the players who made the field for the Sharks played fewer than ten times – Jesse Colquhoun (6) and Mawene Hiroti (1) – and they used just 23 players throughout, the fewest in the NRL by a distance.
Only the Panthers and Broncos used under 30, proving the benefits of cohesion once more.
That does speak to a side that didn’t have to worry too much about injuries, but also one that prioritised picking and sticking.
It certainly wasn’t that they didn’t have alternatives to pick from, either.
Newtown Jets went pretty well in NSW Cup and some of their best, such as centre Kayal Iro, fullback Dan Atkinson and the aforementioned Colquhoun and Hiroti are plenty good enough for NRL level.
Fitzgibbon essentially has it cracked at this point. His first team are good, with a well-established side, everyone singing from the same hymnsheet and very little need to change. You could pick the Round 1 squad right now, injuries permitting.
The pathway that feeds the first grade is also good, with a raft of young guns waiting in reggies to step up.
The issue comes at the very top end, and that’s incredibly hard to recruit for. The Sharks are 0-3 in finals under Fitzgibbon and flamed out spectacularly to the Roosters.
Their only wins over sides that made the 8 were early in the year against the Roosters and Knights, when they were rubbish, and on the final round against the Raiders, who were pretty rubbish all year and also had a man sent off in the first half.
Statistically, the Sharks bat up from their sixth place ladder position in attack. As far as metres, line breaks, tries and tackle breaks go, they’re a top four side.
Defensively, they’re batting above too, either top eight or top four in almost every relevant category. It’s just doing it on the day that matters.
How does one recruit for that? The Sharks are likely quiet on the signings front because they like to keep the guys they have – fair enough – but also because the cap is tight.
That their November 1 list includes first team staples like Braden Hamlin-Uele, Toby Rudolf and Jack Williams, plus gun youngsters Connor Tracey, Niwhai Puru and Iro suggests that they aren’t able to offer the deals that they would like to just yet.
The big change last year was Matt Moylan being swapped out for Brayden Trindall in the halves – and that might present them with an opportunity.
If Moylan left, along with Graham already leaving, there’s a decent chance that the other guys could be offered more than they currently are and thus would extend.
Tracey would immediately become the first reserve halves back-up (along with Puru as a pure 7) and allow money to go elsewhere in the team to strengthen.
If there is a weak link in what the Sharks try to do, it might be in their bench. Graham provided great utility value, and he needed to, because it was generally Tom Hazleton and Royce Hunt as low-minute interchange props, Jack Williams as a catch-all forward and AN Other forward.
The solution was often Graham, who can fill in as a half, or Cam McInnes, who can shift around from lock, or Siosifa Talakai moving to the forwards to help out.
The lack of a genuine utility is an issue that is only exacerbated by Graham’s retirement, and brought into sharper focus by the huge workload on hooker Blayke Brailey, who featured in all but 29 minutes of the season in the middle.
Clearly, someone who can do a bit of 9 and a bit of backs would be a huge assistance to the Sharks to take a spot on the bench.
The forward utility is sorted as long as Talakai and McInnes are around, and Tracey fills in anywhere on the backline from the start, but as a game-changer, spark plug or stand-in, it’s thin on the ground.
Someone like Tyrone Peachey, into his last year at the Panthers and nowhere near a first choice, would be perfect.
He began at Cronulla way back in 2013 and, of course, bears a name much associated with the club thanks to his uncle David.
His ability to flit into multiple positions would be much appreciated in the Shire.
Kodi Nikorima, too, is in his final year at the Dolphins and could be exactly the sort of player that would happily be first in reserve to start and come in off the bench whenever something needed to change.
If there’s cap to be found, then it’s a superb option for a guy who has continually shown value, but might be surplus to requirements at his club.