Two years into his time at Cronulla, it’s worth revisiting where the Sharks were when Craig Fitzgibbon took charge, and just how much he has improved them.
His last game of 2023, a disappointing finals loss to the Roosters, was his 50th as a first grade coach – well, 49th if you remember that his first was done remotely as he self-isolated – and the list of achievements is pretty long given the limited time frame.
In 2021, the Sharks finished one spot out of the finals, so it wasn’t as if they were a basket case when Fitzy took over, but not all ninth place finishes are created equally.
That was a year of almost historic imbalance in the NRL, with three teams level on a 10-14 record in the middle of the ladder, all three of whom had a negative points difference.
2021, if you remember, had three very good teams, three quite good teams, Newcastle, then trash from pretty much there downwards. Even the Knights, who had a 50% record, were -143 on differential.
Fitzgibbon has come in and made a team that were worse than the Titans into one that has finished second, sixth and, in all likelihood, will make the top eight again.
His record across those 50 games is 31-19 (62%), which sticks Fitzgibbon in with his mentor, Trent Robinson, Wayne Bennett and Jack Gibson. Smaller sample size, of course, but a very promising start.
Those results are good but remain a contested space, and with good reason.
It’s undeniable that the Sharks have had a rails run as far as the draw is concerned in the last two years, which does help, and that will likely continue into 2024 with the fixture calculator kind again.
Fitzgibbon’s record in finals is 0-3, which is bad, and borne out by a deep dive into the opposition that those 31 wins were recorded against.
If you take their results against the five teams that haven’t made finals, over the time that Fitzgibbon has been in charge (the Tigers, Dragons, Bulldogs, Titans and Manly) they are 14-1, whereas if you take the five best performing teams over the same period (Penrith, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra and the Roosters), the record is 2-12.
If we’re looking solely at wins and losses, the Sharks are proper flat track bullies. Coaching, however, is not always about getting the W. The process matters.
On that front, Fitzgibbon has instantly become of the most successful coaches in the league, with a highly identifiable style of play and a strong public face in the media.
Anyone who had dealt with Fitzy over his long, storied playing career knew what sort of a bloke he was but even with that his refusal to blame referees, his level-headedness in both defeat and victory and his willingness to engage on tactical issues in the usually confrontational press conference environment is impressive.
It was a joke at the start of his regime that the good guy act would run out after a few years, but it hasn’t yet. Almost every presser begins with a word on whether it was a good game or not, regardless of how his side played within it.
The tactical side is perhaps unsurprising.
Fitzgibbon performed a long apprenticeship under Robinson at the Roosters at a time when Easts were one of the best sides to watch and prioritised the sort of attacking footy that is now synonymous with the Sharks.
But to take a side without much identity and make them so distinctive in such a short amount of time is no mean feat.
Moreover, he’s done it without an enormous overhaul of playing resources: Nicho Hynes, Dale Finucane and Cam McInnes joined for his first year, Oregon Kaufusi for his second and, so far, nobody has signed at all going into 2024.
It’s basically the same squad of players, supplemented by internal promotions from the Newtown Jets feeder system. Of the most commonly played 17 in 2023, 14 were on the books prior to Fitzgibbon’s arrival.
Clearly, something is building in the Shire – and now, the time has come to act upon it. That finals record will hang over Fitzgibbon’s head until it doesn’t, and there’s only one way to change it.
The big question that the coach has to answer will be whether the problems against elite defences are a bug or a feature of his system.
His system, which is based on high push supports, agile forwards and a willingness to play wide early, has been incredibly effective against overmatched defences.
The inherent risk in that style of play, however, has seen it come up short against the better sides without the ball with the Sharks unable to defend their own errors in turn.
At the Roosters, Robinson and Fitzgibbon were able to do exactly that. There might have been a bit of nefariousness to it – one thinks of the many goalline ruck penalties – but that left it up to the refs to decide.
The jury is still out on how useful a tactic such as that would be in the Six Again era.
The Sharks were fourth best in the comp for metres conceded in 2023, usually a good barometer for how a defence is going in terms of keeping a side at arm’s length, but drop to seventh best for tries conceded, suggesting that the goalline wasn’t what it could be.
They also made the fifth most tackles total while making the most errors, backing up the theory that they were more than happy to do a lot of defending as a result of expansive attacking.
That pattern of play is set and seems unlikely to change, then. This is the plan and they’re going to stick to it.
Fitzgibbon spoke a lot last year about defence, so it’s clear that he knows where he side have to improve.
That might be why so little activity has taken place in the transfer market, because defending is fundamentally about systems and application, whereas attack is both systems and individuals.
Fitzgibbon knows that his boys can attack. There’s no need to change there and there might be a fair amount of natural improvement with Braydon Trindall in permanently for Matt Moylan – often a defensive culprit in 2023, too – and an extra year’s worth of cohesion into his side.
They could probably do with a little more in the middle, and overtures towards Addin Fonua-Blake suggest that the hierarchy at Shark Park think the same thing.
With Moylan gone, Wade Graham retired and Finucane set to drop onto a lower wage for 2025, it might be that a big man is the missing part of the puzzle.
If the game continues to open up, too, it will suit Fitzgibbon. Since he took over, we have seen Souths, Brisbane, Manly and Parra become overtly attack-first teams, with the Broncos nearly going the whole way based on that philosophy.
The sides who have best challenged Penrith across their three year period of dominance have done so by attacking well enough to challenge their supreme defence. If someone is to overturn that dynasty in 2024, the chances are that it will be by outscoring the opposition.
Fitzgibbon has already set his stall out to play in such a manner going forward. Into year three at Cronulla, doing it against the best remains the next hurdle to overcome.