Things certainly aren’t dire in the shire, but the Sharks will be struck with a wave of unexpected urgency as season 2024 arrives.
Just like the consequences of an inquisitive shark approaching from deep and murky water, the status of the Craig Fitzgibbon era in Cronulla may well be flashing before its eyes.
It sounds dramatic, but season 2024 is far more life and death than how it appears from a casual distance.
This is a Sharks team that has done plenty of winning the last two seasons; a 63% win rate and back-to-back top eight finishes to show for their efforts. But even the more casual observers can point to what’s gone wrong in Woolooware under their first-time head coach, since the reign began in the 2021-22 off-season.
The Sharks’ September woes
Cronulla-Sutherland haven’t fired a September shot and, sadly, rarely go toe-to-toe with the apex predators of the NRL. That’s the step this group will be expecting to take this year, amid the fresh optimism that a sunny off-season is known to bring.
But public expectations are, frankly, more in line with ‘we’ll believe it when we see it’ sentiment.
And no-one can blame fans for harbouring those thoughts; the ladder at the end of tediously long NRL seasons tends to tell more truths than lies. But that’s hardly the case for a roster still searching for its first signature victory in the Fitzgibbon era, despite having gone 32 wins and 19 losses in that stretch.
And all that may well be the least of the Sharks’ problems; there are bigger fish to fry, when observers zoom out.
The larger problem
As the countdown to Round 1 intensifies, fans of the Sharks will be hitching their dreams to star seven Nicho Hynes, primarily. He’s proven to be one of the competition’s best purchases in recent rugby league history, with a Dally M medal to prove it.
Beyond the former Storm utility-turned pivotal halfback, though, this side remains short a couple of killers.
Briton Nikora enters 2024 as a top 24 player in the comp, according to us, but that’s kind of where the star power in this team comes to a screeching halt.
Craig Fitzgibbon has a quality, balanced roster, albeit lacking some punch up front and insurance in certain roles. But should the side navigate the rigours of the next seven months fortunate enough to avoid suffering the harsh reality that, inevitably, several teams will face – injuries to key players – the team is likely to once again be preparing for a finals campaign. Even if it’ll undoubtedly face scrutiny far more acutely than what other qualifiers will experience.
The good news is, though, that with reasonable injury luck, Fitzgibbon’s squad will again likely land in the mix — it’d be three top eight finishes from three attempts since he took charge.
And yet, it kind of only feels like he took the reins more recently, such is the anecdotal pace. His tenure skipped the – very normal – rebuilding phase that most clubs with a new coach face; because coaching tenures tend to end in trying times and the next man up deals with more problems than positives. But it was straight into the top four for Craig’s Cronulla; they hit the ground running.
And yet, at least from the outside looking in, what is the progress that can be pointed to, in the 18 months since the side’s straight sets exit in 2022?
Only subtle roster moves have been made in that time. But the key word is, indeed, ‘subtle’.
The club’s football department, led by General Manager of Football Darren Mooney, is about to be met with the added heat of a swarming pack of hyperbolic NRL journalists, like the playing group and coach are certainly readying themselves for.
Cronulla’s living in the moment, if you will. Of players currently inside its top 30, only Nicho Hynes is signed through 2027, the second-lowest long-term commitment – based on that specific framework – of all 18 clubs in the competition. The diabolical Dragons are the only other side on par; an operation that no professional sporting club holds itself up against. The Warriors are the other, with a unique set of circumstances geographically, and figuring out what they are after a season that surely even themselves had hardly anticipated.
Among last year’s finalists, the landscape view of the playing list stands out starkly; only New Zealand has more to figure out beyond the 2025 season.
And call it ironic, perhaps, but those two clubs’ off-season player movement news revolves around each other. Tongan enforcer Addin Fonua-Blake joins the Sharks’ ranks from next season, becoming the only player not named Nicho that’s guaranteed to be there for the 2027 campaign. And on the flip side, Sharks front-rower Bradon Hamlin-Uele is reportedly weighing up a deal to go back the other way.
✍️ AFB is coming to Cronulla!https://t.co/vl62IrCFJl— Cronulla Sharks (@cronullasharks) December 19, 2023
According the the NRL’s Signings Tracker, prop Toby Rudolph, hooker Blayke Brailey, centres Siosifa Talakai and Jesse Ramien, and winger Sione Katoa are the only other players signed beyond 2025; all contracted through the ’26 season. That means that everyone else can control their own future as soon as November 1 this year, unless of course they extend between now and the end of the rugby league year.
It’s by no means panic stations at PointsBet Stadium just yet.
Most experts can’t envisage this iteration of the Cronulla Sharks competing with the NRL’s true heavyweights; the Penriths and Brisbanes of the world. And yet it’s certainly not win or bust for third-year coach Craig Fitzgibbon.
But enough has to go right for the core of this team to continue believing that everything remains on course. Or the mission will capsize quicker than it all started — and rivals on an upward trajectory will be circling.