Rookie coach Craig Fitzgibbon steps into the hot seat at Cronulla knowing that the club has assembled a squad with the ability to go far in 2022. Whilst he has the tools at his disposal, he knows that he steps into a club that boasts a history of having disappointment as its greatest friend
Last season was a rollercoaster. Cronulla entered 2021 having not missed the finals since the disastrous wooden spoon season of seven years prior. However, many pundits saw this as the season in which the Sharks would take a fall with several squad members nearing the end of their careers.
General expectations were low in the NRL community, and yet the lifting of that first premiership trophy in 2016 has only served to heighten the thirst for success in the Shire: they have tasted its sweet nectar and now they want more. The board, whilst with an eye on the present, were also looking well into the future.
They had identified that Fitzgibbon was their man, and quickly moved to secure their coach for 2022 and beyond before any other potential suitor could pull the rug from beneath them. This led to the somewhat messy exit of popular incumbent John Morris in mid-season.
Caretaker coach Josh Hannay managed to engineer a revival after a start which saw Cronulla lose six games straight for a 2-8 win-loss record after round ten. A run of four victories gave hope renewed to the Sharks, but losses to fellow bottom-half clubs Brisbane, Canberra and New Zealand cost them dearly.
Cronulla took the field for the final regular season match knowing that a win could yet give them finals action. Sadly, achieving victory over minor premiers Melbourne proved to be a bridge too far, leaving their dreams shattered amongst the early September dust.
Dale Finucane (Melbourne Storm), Nicho Hynes (Melbourne Storm), Matt Ikuvalu (Sydney Roosters), Cameron McInnes (St George Illawarra), Jayden Berrell, Kade Dykes, Jack Martin, Lachlan Miller, Ryan Rivett
Will Chambers (rugby union), Josh Dugan (retired), Shaun Johnson (New Zealand Warriors), Nene McDonald (Leigh UK), Billy Magoulias (Warrington UK), Chad Townsend (North Queensland Cowboys), Aaron Woods (St George Illawarra)
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Those in the know at Shark Park are expecting big things from 2021’s fallen warriors. Wade Graham and Andrew Fifita took enforced early marks from the 2021 season, having succumbed to injury just when times were starting to look bright. They now appear bent on ensuring that the absence of finals action is a short one.
Co-captain Graham appears to be past his concussion issues and is expected to saddle up for the season opener against Canberra. Fifita, never one to do things by halves, ended up in an induced coma after suffering a blow to the throat that required surgery just so that he was able to breathe. His efforts on the track suggest that he is fixated on making up for lost time this year.
Fellow captain Dale Finucane and the experienced forward Cameron McInnes, new recruits to the club, appear to have slotted into the Cronulla set-up seamlessly, as has Matt Ikuvalu. One of the main problems that Cronulla faced in 2021 was a deficiency in strike power off the fringes of the ruck, and Ikuvalu has been brought in to fix this issue. He shows every sign of taking to his task with relish.
What to expect
A freshness of spirit and hope renewed under new coach Fitzgibbon. He brings with him a slate wiped clean, as the trials and tribulations of a difficult season are left behind leaving 2022’s canvas well and truly blank.
That Cronulla boasted the sixth-best defence and the seventh-best attack suggests that there were not too many glaring weaknesses in 2021. The protracted deposition of John Morris did little for the mood of the playing group, and this could well have played a major role in Cronulla’s inability to triumph in several close finishes where just one more victory would have seen finals action.
The instability that plagued 2021 should not prove to be a burden in 2022. Look for Cronulla to play with a freedom that has not been seen since the heady days of the middle of last decade.
It’s a big year for?
The youngster stepped into the fullback role and performed to such a degree that he was named as most valuable player in 2021. There were indeed few in the black, white and blue to challenge him for the title, such was his brilliance and consistency throughout a season where the form of the collective was somewhat patchy.
Kennedy enters this season with the target well and truly on his back. The pressure on Kennedy to produce is exacerbated by the fact that new recruit Nicho Hynes, who made such a great impression whilst deputising for Ryan Papenhuyzen in Melbourne’s number one jersey twelve months ago, will be moved to five-eighth at Cronulla this year.
The Sharks’ need to maximise their strike power is paramount to their chances of being a major player at the back end of 2022. Kennedy’s creativity and ball-carrying ability will be vital to Cronulla’s ability to achieve this.
Biggest unanswered question
Can the new look squad gel in time to feature in the finals?
Cronulla have moved along a lot of experienced talent, Will Chambers, Josh Dugan, Shaun Johnson, Chad Townsend and Aaron Woods have all headed towards the exit door, either by their own design or at the behest of the club.
In Finucane, Hynes, Ikuvalu and McInnes, the Sharks have recruited players that they feel can take them to the summit over the next five years. The theory is that the raw, young talent is there but they need to augment this with mentors not only for now, but for the future as well.
The start of this season’s fixture is loaded with matches against sides that they need to beat if they are to play in the big matches of the spring. The big question is the cohesion of the Cronulla unit: can they gel early enough to get the early wins that they need to set up their season?
Coaching pressure index
As a new leader with no experience of coaching a club in his own right, Craig Fitzgibbon will rightly claim a few free kicks as he feels his way and makes his own mistakes. Barring the most dramatic of unforeseen disasters, he will not be losing his job any time in 2022.
That is not to say that his year will be totally stress free. There is the feeling from within that Cronulla under-achieved significantly on the field in 2021, and it will not be looked upon kindly should the club mark time in 2022, or God forbid, go backwards.
There are those in the Shire that are heartily sick of the perception that the club is the little brother figure of the NRL. The board and the people of the district are of the view that this squad needs to bring another premiership to the Shire within the next few years. They will be looking for tangible signs that Fitzgibbon can make this happen.
Predicted round one lineup
Following Braydon Trindall’s suspension Luke Metcalf should win the the race to partner Hynes in the halves, but the pressure will be on from the get go to perform.
McInnes will be the real ace in the pack providing coverage over a wide range of positions, the former Dragons hooker has been known to play both dummy-half and lock, but his agility and explosiveness could make him dangerous on the edge.
7th – 10th
2022 is the brave new world that the Cronulla faithful are craving after the tumult that was 2021. Where there is significant turnover of key personnel there is always uncertainty regarding how the future will look.
It is, of course, possible that Cronulla will disappoint those that love them and continue their downward trend. However, the club has assembled the talent and experience they believe will enable them to take the next step. A place in the 2022 finals awaits: do the Sharks have the wherewithal to grab it?
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