Written by Oliver Kellner-Dunk
After missing out on the top eight for the first time in seven years in 2021 it was time for the Cronulla Sutherland Sharks to rebuild.
Under new head coach Craig Fitzgibbon they have done just that and quickly too, going from ninth place two seasons ago to second in 2022.
Fitzgibbon’s work started long before his first day on the job as the 45-year-old began recruiting talent over a year ago signing the likes of premiership winners Dale Finucane and Nicho Hynes from the Melbourne Storm, Sydney Roosters player Matt Ikuvalu, 2021 Queensland Cup Player of the year Jayden Berrell and former Rugby Sevens Australian international Lachlan Miller.
Many were tipping the Sharks to improve in 2022 and return to the finals but they far exceeded expectations with their top-four finish.
Unfortunately they went out in straight sets in the finals following an all-time classic against the North Queensland Cowboys and a big elimination final loss to the South Sydney Rabbitohs.
What let Sharks fans down about their finals exit was the team’s poor defensive performance in both finals games.
Cronulla were the NRL’s third-best defensive team last season but conceded 70 points in their two finals games after conceding just 16 points in the two weeks prior which included a clean sheet against the Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs.
Despite the disappointing end to 2022 for the Sharks they can be proud of their season and have set the foundations in place to make a real push for the premiership in 2023.
Promising 20-year-old playmaker Niwhai Puru has signed on with the Sharks for the next two seasons#UpUp
— Cronulla Sharks (@cronullasharks) December 6, 2022
If Fitzgibbon can ensure that his squad maintains a similar defensive effort throughout next season it should at least be enough to earn Cronulla a top-four finish as their backline should remain as strong as it has been in recent years.
One point of concern though is reigning Dally M Player of the Year Nicholas Hynes and how he should be approaching this season.
He was the glue that held the Sharks attack together in 2022 with his service giving some of the game’s best outside backs the chance to thrive but next year the question is whether or not Fitzgibbon should have him playing the same as he did last season and risk opposition teams creating a game plan to shut him down or have Hynes alter his game slightly to keep defences guessing but also risk him being less effective.
The answer to this problem may not be Hynes himself but his halves partner in 2023 who should be Lachlan Miller who did not play as an outright half during his seven appearances for the Sharks next season but displayed a brilliant running game that could be used as a real attacking threat next season and manage to create that uncertainty in the minds of opposition defences while allowing Hynes to maintain his current style of play.
In terms of signings the Sharks have not made many for 2023 but haven’t had to but have done good business in bringing Parramatta Eels forward Oregan Kaufusi to the club.
Cronulla has had an ageing forward pack for the past couple of seasons and the cracks have begun to show so the acquisition of a 23-year-old who has already played nearly 100 first-grade games like Kaufusi should help the club immensely, not to mention his 94% tackle efficiency rate from last season which if maintained will go a long way in seeing the Sharks once again be one of the NRL’s best defensive sides.
To become premiers the Sharks do not need to change much at all from 2022.
As long as they can keep putting on defensive masterclasses and keep up their blistering attack there is no reason why Cronulla should not expect to be premiers next season