2021 Season Review: Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks – So close, yet so far

The Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks’ season came to a heart-breaking end, narrowly missing the opportunity to play finals after the Gold Coast Titans forced them out of the eight on point difference.

It seemed as though that would be the icing on the cake for the Sharks this year, who battled season-ending injuries, the mid-week sacking of John Morris and were unable to find on-field consistency.

With Josh Hannay left to pick up the pieces as interim coach, Cronulla finished the season with 10 wins and 14 losses, missing the chance to play finals for the seventh year in a row.

The Inner Sanctum looks at a year in review for the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks.

Sharks captain Wade Graham celebrated his 250th in Round 2 this season. Photo: NRL/Twitter

What Worked?

Braydon Trindall filled the shoes of Shaun Johnson after he departed the Sharks, assisting to maintain the team’s kicking accuracy, with Cronulla finishing second overall in the league for conversions this year.

With an 83 per cent conversion rate for the year, Johnson’s 10 appearances saw him achieve a 90 per cent goal conversion rate, with Trindall following at 81.8 per cent across 18 appearances to cement himself as the 2022 halfback.

Set completion also worked in favour of the Sharks, who finished second behind the Bulldogs with an average set completion of 79.6 per cent per game.

Braydon Trindall kicked a total of 36 goals for the Sharks this year. Photo: nrl.com

What Didn’t?

Injury devastated the Sharks this year, with many new players added to the line-up, it was inevitable that it would take time to gel as a team again.

Captain Wade Graham suffered multiple head-knocks throughout the season, eventually forcing him to finish the year on the sideline.

Whilst Andrew Fifita’s fractured larynx rocked the NRL community, with the prop placed in a five-day induced coma following an unintentional hit to the throat in Round 22.

Johnson also suffered a season-ending hamstring injury and 21-year-old Ronaldo Mulitalo ended his season on the sideline with a broken jaw.

Shaun Johnson requested immediate release from the Sharks following his injury, to return home to New Zealand before the travel bubble closed. Photo: NRL/Twitter

The Sharks finished first in the NRL for missed tackles totalling 910 this year, with Blayke Brailey leading the league for most ineffective tackles across the 24 games he played.

John Morris’ tumultuous departure coupled with Will Chambers’ constant verbal baiting to opposing teams caused significant issues for the Sharks too.

Who Impressed?

Will Kennedy displayed incredible talent this season across all 24 games he participated in, scoring four doubles and assisting 14 tries.

This was Kennedy’s best season so far, coming away with 62 tackle breaks, 15 line-breaks and 3511 total run metres to win the ‘Porter-Gallen Medal’ – the Sharks’ player of the year award.

He provided safety and security at the back, creativity in attack and was often a point of call when things got tough for the Sharks.

Making his debut against the Manly Sea Eagles in Round 20, Luke Metcalf took to the field for only 14 minutes off the bench, but this small taste was enough to inspire the kid from Coffs Harbour.

At just 22-years-of-age, Metcalf made six appearances for the Sharks this season, making 37 tackles and scoring two tries.

The highlight of his debut season came in Round 23 against the Wests Tigers, where Metcalf played 77 minutes to add eight points for the Sharks, as well as assisting one try and braking five tackles.

Although he has limited first-grade experience, the speedy half-back has the ability to build on his potential and becoming a star at the Sharks in years to come.

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Season Highlight

The season highlight for the Sharks came in Round 14, where they produced a monumental win against an undermanned Panthers roster.

After being thrashed by the Panthers 48-0 in Round 9, the Sharks came out firing in the first half with Matt Moylan, Shaun Johnson and Ronaldo Mulitalo all adding four points to the board.

Creative footwork and strong kicks saw the Sharks capitalise off holes in Penrith’s defence, to head into half time with an 18-0 lead.

The Panthers came out firing in the second half, with Matt Burton inspiring a comeback in the absence of Origin stars; Nathan Cleary, Jarome Luai, Isaah Yeo, Brian To’o and Kurt Capewell.

Defending tirelessly, the Sharks were motivated by captain Wade Graham who was sent to the sideline to face his fourth head injury assessment (HIA) for the year.

Panthers’ star Stephen Crichton levelled the scores in the 75th minute, kicking a penalty goal off the back of a dangerous tackle from Briton Nikora.

But a line break from Connor Tracey in the 78th minute put Johnson in the perfect position to slot a 35-metre one-point field goal to claim victory for the Sharks.

To hand the Panthers a second-straight loss for the first time in two years would be a significant boost to the Sharks’ confidence moving forward.

Season Lowlight

A turbulent week for the Sharks was only made worse when the Newcastle Knights add insult to injury in a 26-22 beating, following the departure of head coach John Morris.

Kalyn Ponga triumphed despite an awful stomach bug, scoring tries between throwing up on the sideline which only added to the comedic defeat.

It seemed as though poor off-field communication with staff had on-field effect, ultimately leaving the Cronulla outfit battered and bruised mentally and physically.

Statistics favoured the Sharks who led the time in possession, completion rate, run metres, average set distance, offloads and effective tackles.

But failure to capitalise off scoring opportunities and poor back-line defence allowed the Knights to creep in.

The clash would be the first time brothers Jayden (Knights) and Blayke Brailey (Sharks) have gone head-to-head in the NRL, with Jayden having the ultimate bragging rights.

Jayden (L) and Blayke Brailey (R) originally played together at the Cronulla Sharks. Photo: nrl.com

Number One Off-Season Priority?

As Craig Fitzgibbon joins the Sharks for season 2022, there will need to be a large focus on players understanding his coaching style, whilst also finding time to gel as a team.

Losing Shaun Johnson and Chad Townsend to the Warriors has left a hole in the halves, with Storm star Nicho Hynes set to couple with Trindall.

There needs to be a significant focus on the cohesion between Hynes and Trindall together, as well as how they work with the team if the Sharks plan to climb the ladder next year.

With Wade Graham facing numerous concussions, the captain may be in doubt of a return, so the Sharks will also need to focus on creating a strong leadership group, with possibly Dale Finucane and Cameron McInnes who have amazing leadership qualities.

Way too Early Best 17 for 2022

Playing a significant role in the NSW Blues Camp as well as Country Origin, although Craig Fitzgibbon is a rookie, he brings confidence and flair that players a drawn to.

McInnes and Finucane bring strength and defence, leading by example.

Whilst 22-year-olds Luke Metcalf and Mawene Hiroti will round out the 20, bringing tenacity to the field with excitement to learn and develop their game.

Final Say

Although they didn’t triumph in the face of significant adversity this year, the Sharks did what they could to manage to stay in the top eight and making finals was out of their control.

Riddled with injury and off-field turbulence, young stars rose to the occasion in difficult circumstances to get the job done.

With new talent making its way to The Shire in 2022, the opportunity for another finals birth seems imminent if they can find team cohesion quickly.

Fitzgibbon comes from the Roosters to frontline the Sharks efforts for 2022. Photo: nrl.com

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About Jessica Miles 30 Articles
Based in Sydney studying Sports Journalism online at La Trobe University, Jessica is one of the youngest members of The Inner Sanctum. Having a love for all sports, she covers netball and rugby league with a particular passion for empowering young women in sport.

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