Why all the pieces now Fitz for Sharks to shed flat-track bullies reputation and show they’re the real deal


There is only one way for Cronulla to shake off their reputation for being flat-track bullies. 

They are off to an impressive start in 2024 by beating the only two finals teams from last season as well as another couple who were supposed to be in the playoff mix this year.

And despite the sudden retirement of co-captain Dale Finucane during the week being compounded by five-eighth Braydon Trindall’s immediate playing future being under a cloud due to a drink-driving offence, the Sharks are well placed to not only make the finals but be a genuine title threat. 

They have rebuilt their roster following the 2016 breakthrough premiership and this season is a clean slate with the last remnants of that squad now gone following Wade Graham’s retirement. 

Finucane was also on the field that Grand Final night for the Storm while the two of the three remaining premiership-winning Sharks in the NRL were on the beaten side at Cronulla last Sunday when Valentine Holmes and Chad Townsend were part of the North Queensland side that was thumped 42-6.

They will face off with the other next Sunday when centre Jack Bird lines up for the Dragons against them in the local derby. 

Cronulla’s reputation for being elite at beating the dud teams but a dud when playing elite opposition manifested itself in 2020 when they lost all nine clashes with the teams that made the top eight and not surprisingly went straight out the finals back door 

Reputation started in 2020 when they lost all eight encounters with finals teams plus their elimination final against Canberra while going 10-2 in their other matches.

That stigma grew the following season when they won just two matches – including one over an Origin-depleted Penrith side – from 11 against the eight sides that qualified for the finals while going 9-4 against the rest.

They actually did well to finish ninth in 2011 after coach John Morris was dumped just five rounds into the season and Josh Hannay righted the ship in a caretaker capacity, warming the seat for Craig Fitzgibbon’s arrival. 

Since Fitzgibbon has taken over, the Sharks have improved slightly against top-calibre opponents, going 9-14 in the regular season, but have lost all three playoff matches.

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— Cronulla Sharks (@cronullasharks) April 23, 2024

Teams reflect the nature of their coaches. Fitzgibbon was a consistently strong performer during his playing career who rarely put in a bad game because of his unwavering commitment to preparation and on-field effort. 

Cronulla rarely put in stinkers, reflected in the fact that they have won 24 of 28 encounters with the teams that have missed the finals in the first two years under Fitzgibbon. 

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And they’re off to a great start this time around to sit in top spot after seven rounds heading into Sunday’s trip to Canberra where they are catching the Raiders at an opportune time in their first game with chief playmaker Jamal Fogarty sidelined long term with a bicep tear. 

Cronulla have already beaten the Raiders once this season, knocked over another 2023 finals team in the Warriors, at Auckland, in Round 1, and showed they were in a different class to South Sydney and the Cowboys when they faced them to provide further evidence that those two teams are unlikely to live up to pre-season predictions that they will make the finals.

Much has been made of the luck of the draw that has fallen the Sharks’ way in terms of the strength of the opponents they have been scheduled to play twice. 

Also, they are in the midst of 10 straight rounds, including a bye week, where they play on a Saturday or Sunday, which is a massive boost for any team with the squad able to settle into a weekly routine without chopping and changing too much with shorter turnarounds.

But after this week they host the Dragons in what is pretty much always an intense derby with a finals-like atmosphere before they enter the toughest part of their season with the Storm, Roosters, Panthers, Eels, Broncos and Dolphins on the slate before their Round 16 bye.

This is where they can prove their title credentials. 

If the Sharks emerge from their mid-season stretch still in the top four, then they deserve to be considered legit trophy contenders come playoff time. 

But if they again struggle to get Ws against the teams above them on the premiership pecking order, then they will be doing nothing much more the rest of this season than playing the waiting game for Addin Fonua-Blake’s arrival for next year to give them a spearhead up front that they have lacked since Andrew Fifita’s peak years either side of their sole Grand Final victory. 

Finucane had been Cronulla’s spiritual leader up front during his two and a bit years at the club but he is more in the grizzled old hard-head mould than a metre-eater who puts opposition defensive lines on their backsides and then their back foot. 

His immediate retirement due to ongoing concussions is a blow but the Sharks have plenty of depth in the middle forwards. 

What they lack is a Payne Haas, a James Fisher-Harris, a Nelson Asofa-Solomona. A forward leader who will skittle opponents by the sheer force of their will, combined with their immense size. 

Their two most likely candidates to bring the nasty are Braden Hamlin-Uele and Toby Rudolf. 

They’re both in that sweet spot now of being in the prime of their careers – Rudolf has four full seasons and 86 NRL games under his belt and BHU is a shade more experienced after reaching his 100th match milestone last weekend. 

Hard workers in a pack are great to ensure you get on top of flawed teams, the ones that routinely miss the eight. 

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

To win the big games, you need big boppers who do everything they can within the rules (and outside of them until the referee steps in) to create momentum in the middle. 

From there, the Sharks are as potent as any other team in the competition. 

Nicho Hynes is one of only a few halfbacks in the league who naturally dominate the play without a second thought. 

Like Daly Cherry-Evans at Manly, Nathan Cleary at Penrith and Adam Reynolds at Brisbane, he is comfortable with all the play going through him and even though he knows opposition defensive lines will target him as their first, second and third priority, he is canny enough to position himself well to launch attacking kicks or to spin the ball wide with a long pass.

The loss of Trindall for at least a few weeks will have some effect but it shouldn’t be a dagger blow even though the Sharks are blooding a rookie in Daniel Atkinson in the No.6 jersey. 

Will Kennedy’s under-rated involvement in attack from fullback gives Cronulla a point of difference while hooker Blayke Brailey is developing into a more creative playmaker from dummy-half to take the load off Hynes’ shoulders.

Kennedy (87 games) and Brailey (116) are also in that time of a player’s career where they have learned all the tricks of the trade through trial and error but are still at their physical peak. 

Cronulla have reconstructed their roster well so that they have several players in their first-choice line-up who are experienced without being old … or young without still learning what it takes to win.

Wingers Ronaldo Mulitalo (93) and Sione Katoa (94), centre Jesse Ramien (128), Trindall when he returns (57), Siosifa Talakai (91), second-rowers Briton Nikora (115) and Teig Wilton (68), and middles Oregon Kaufusi (96), Jack Williams (105) all fit that bill with only captain Cameron McInnes (184 matches in his 11th season) now the only Shark fitting into the veteran category.

Which is also important in that he will keep his players accountable.

It was refreshing to hear McInnes break from the norm of NRL player-speak during the week when asked about Trindall being charged for drink-driving without a licence.

“All of our actions reflect on each other,” he told reporters. “That’s our mindset as a team. If one of us slips up, there’s always something big or small we could have done.”

Fitzgibbon has this Cronulla club heading in the right direction on and off the field, all that’s left now is to prove they can take the hardest leap for any team on the rise – to go from a good team to a great one.

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