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Cronulla v the best: How can the Sharks improve to help them get over the line in big games?

25th January, 2024
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25th January, 2024
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Cronulla are a really good team. They’re fun to watch, score a lot of points, win a lot of games and possess a generally likeable air.

It’s hard to dislike a club that has Craig Fitzgibbon, one of the most personable and eloquent coaches, and Nicho Hynes, one of the nicest guys in the league, as their main public faces.

There’s probably an obvious line here about nice guys coming last, and  come finals time, it’s one that the Sharks might appreciate. It’s 0-3 so far under Fitzy.

Their 2016 premiers were far from likeable, but they certainly got the job done. Winners don’t care if they made friends along the way.

For the purposes of anyone midway through a series that uses stats to settle outstanding questions in line-ups and recruitment, the 2024 Sharks are an absolute nightmare.

There aren’t any questions, and there isn’t any recruitment. Their 1-17, as detailed in our Round Preview, is exactly the same as the one that finished last year.

They lost Wade Graham from that team, but he was a bench utility, plus Matt Moylan, who they cut midseason and Connor Tracey, who was only filling in because Will Kennedy, the starting fullback, and Kade Dykes, the next man up, were both injured.

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They gained, err, nobody. Unless you pull out the ‘he’ll be like a new signing’ for Kennedy, the only actual additions are Billy Burns and Michael Gabrael – and if you want to see them play, Henson Park really is quite lovely on a Saturday afternoon.

The data tells us the Sharkies are exceptional in attack but struggle against anyone who can repel them long enough to score themselves. That much is obvious to the eye test, too.

Given that the teams most likely to do that are those at the top of the ladder, it’s proven a problem come finals time. Again, if you’ve seen them, you probably have noticed this.

Diving deeper, we can see that they love push supports more than anyone and like to play wide, straighten up, get men in motion and then hit the corners.

Not to labour the point, but this is all very obvious to anyone who has watched Fitzyball over the last two years. What, if anything, can we learn that is new?

(Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Well, Cronulla have somewhat given the game away themselves on this front through their actions.

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Their addition of Addin Fonua-Blake for 2025 shows that they have identified their middle as a bit of a weakness, and that is something you can pick out of the data.

Fitzgibbon was dealt a pretty small pack, and leaned into it by adopting an attacking style that prioritised agility over size.

Looking through the numbers, this is reflected in the quickness of their play the balls – third best behind the Panthers and Roosters – which clearly emphasises get down, get up above any wrestling.

They entrust their back five to get them started, which should in turn save their middles for defensive duties – but that isn’t always backed up.

Toby Rudolf and Braden Hamlin-Uele rank pretty low from Tackle Efficiency among starting props – surprise, surprise, AFB is one of the top – and, against the best packs, can lead to the Sharks losing the middle and allowing space out wide as a result.

Their ability to keep teams away from their own red zone was impressive, with the fourth fewest metres conceded, but that didn’t translate into a solid defence at times.

Remember: we’re not trying to make Cronulla good, we’re trying to make them the best. Against the really good teams, it was clear that ares of the edge defence weren’t up to it.

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Siosifa Talakai was a noted weakness. He one of the worst in the comp among regular centres for Line Breaks Caused (LBC), a measure of bad reads.

Ironically, he sits right next to Morgan Harper, whom he famously gave a bath in Anzac Round of 2022.

Normally, one could suggest that this is a function of the way that the team plays, in the sense that defeat in the middle is felt out wide, but on the other side, Jesse Ramien has no such troubles. He’s one of the best defensive centres around.

Talakai is also second last for one-on-one tackles, just worse than Justin Olam, who was dropped from the Storm, a challenger to the Sharks, for his poor defence, and worse than Joseph Suaalii, whom the Roosters shifted away from the centres for the same reason.

Talakai is a nice metaphor for Fitzgibbon’s issue. His tackling will certainly hold back any chances Cronulla have of holding out on the goalline against the best attacks, who know that he can be isolated, but the Tonga international is a superb attacking player and adds so much on that side of the ball. It’s a circle they need to square.

There are, however, green shoots. Kayal Iro is the next cab off the rank for centres and might get a look in, especially if Talakai continues to tackle the way he has been.

Should that happen, it’s likely the big centre will revert to either the backrow, where he started, or the bench, where he can provide spark and flexibility. The potential for a properly elite attacking edge forward is there and, two men further in, the defensive liabilities might be masked.

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The lack of size in the pack could be assisted by the arrival of Talakai, and the further exposure to first grade of Tom Hazleton.

(Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)

The mammoth bench forward rates as the best in the NRL for Involvement Rate among players to have played at least ten games, meaning he provides the maximum amount of effort per minute of anyone coming off the interchange.

Last year, Cronulla ran a very strange rotation, with Hazleton, Colquhoun and Royce Hunt all averaging 25 minutes each, plus Rudolf on 45 and Hamlin-Uele on 39.

They relied a lot on other players being able to come in and fill time, whether Cam McInnes or Dale Finucane from lock, Oregon Kaufusi as a depth option or Jack Williams as a forward utility.

Hazleton has shown in his limited minutes thus far that he can handle more, and the plan has to be to made that happen. He can add that bulk, at least until Addin arrives.

There’s the old adage that there are only three positions in rugby league – halfback, front row and everyone else.

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Cronulla excel at halfback with Hynes and everyone else is pretty good too, but put them in with a Payne Haas and James Fisher-Harris and they fold pretty quickly.

Size isn’t everything, and it’s less important to a side like Cronulla than to plenty of others. But it’s not nothing either.

Rugby league is a funny sport like that. It’s the weakest of weak link sports, in that standard of your worst player is much more important the standard of your best, but at the very elite levels, where every player is good, it is the elite of the elite who make the difference.

Fitzgibbon has built a collective that you can bank on to win 15 games and finish in the eight. As it currently stands, they would also start as outsiders against most teams in the finals.

Changing that going into 2024 can be the big leap forward for the Sharks.

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