The Cronulla Sharks had an inconsistent season, and it ended up costing them a spot in the finals by the closest of margins. Here is their season review.
Pre-season predicted finish: 9th
Actual finish: 9th
Record: Ten wins (-36)
2021 season snapshot
The Sharks season ended pretty much exactly how I, and most pundits, saw it ending. Either they'd sneak into the finals or they'd just miss.
Unfortunately for fans of the club, the Sharks streak of finals appearances ends at six. At times they looked as though they would contest a seventh but truthfully didn't deserve it.
This side were always likely to fall foul of the new, faster game. With an aging roster and ridiculously back heavy contracts, 2021 felt like a gap year of sorts.
The season could have derailed very quickly, very early with the John Morris to Craig Fitzgibbon shift, but to the credit of Josh Hannay and the club, they were right in finals contention up until the last round.
Star player William Kennedy
It was very difficult to either name, or decide between multiple players, across many clubs. The Sharks were not one of them. William Kennedy was head and shoulders above the rest.
He showed some brilliant signs last season but in 2021, he was the Sharks linchpin in attack whilst his defence, positioning and support play improved out of sight.
14 tries and 14 try assists in a side who struggled at times to score points is very impressive. He also made 15 line breaks, broke 62 tackles and ran for over 145 metres per game.
The stats simply don't do justice to the season the Sharks number one had. His combination with Matt Moylan was lethal and he quickly became the heart of the Sharks outfit.
Breakout star: Teig Wilton
There were a few names to choose from this time around but for mine young back-rower Teig Wilton shone. He did the job across multiple positions over his 16 appearances in 2021.
Whether playing in the centres, off the bench or in his favoured back row position, Teig hit like a truck in defence and bent the line in attack.
118 run metres on average is super impressive for a youngster who played a wide role off the bench more often than not.
He will add to his 21 first grade caps next season under incoming coach Craig Fitzgibbon. It's worth mentioning his brilliant attitude despite his uncle John Morris being moved on. He showed humility and intelligence far beyond his years.
Rugby League Outlaws present their Sharks season review & much more
John Morris did incredibly well considering the mess he inherited but Fitzgibbon had been chased by multiple clubs for multiple years.
He chose the Sharks.
The club also managed to largely navigate the horror salary cap corner they backed themselves into. Players years past their best were amongst the game's highest paid players. Not anymore.
The Sharks managed to sign three players who immediately solve three issues and will enter a new era under a highly lauded coach back at Shark Park in 2022.
Spine set: In the pre-season Will Kennedy looked a stopgap option at one while it was a race between Matt Moylan and Shaun Johnson to see who could manage to stay on the field for three straight games.
Only young, Blayke Brailey looked the option in his starting position.
Fast forward a season and the Sharks now have one of the game's form fullbacks in Kennedy tied down to the club for multiple years, whilst unearthing two brilliant potential options next season.
Throw in the signing of star in the making Nicho Hynes to play six or seven plus the ever-improving Brailey, and suddenly the Sharks look set in the one, six, seven and nine for many years to come.
Morris Mess: It was the off-field distraction that threatened to derail their season. Popular coach John Morris was removed from his position shortly after the Sharks announced Craig Fitzgibbon would take over in 2022.
The Sharks undoubtedly got the decision right but the way it was handled was abysmal and caused weeks of distraction. Morris made public comments that the Sharks really needed to respond to but didn't.
Shaun Johnson, at the time the Sharks highest profile player, went on NRL talk shows and rubbished the club and the decision.
Josh Hannay was thrust into a position completely not of his making. To his credit he handled it better than he ever had any right to be able to do.
The Sharks were lucky that this didn't drag on. A few wins and a superstar signing managed to distract fans and reports long enough for it to finally slip out of the news cycle.
Middle defence: I'm going to pull no punches here. The Sharks middle defence was, at times, disgusting. It was painful to watch as a fan but an absolute holiday for opposing attackers.
Aaron Woods slowly became a meme for Sharks fans as his 'efforts' in defence were used to sum up the club's attitude in the middle. He was far from the only offender.
The Sharks missed a horror 910 tackles. The Panthers, who played every week of the finals, were second on the table with 885, although that number includes finals. They only missed 714 during the regular season and none of the top eight missed more than 800.
The club has signed two of the best middle defenders in the competition to hopefully plug that gap next season. No prize for guessing Fitzgibbon's first task come November.
Season Grade: C+
I remain completely split on this season for the Sharks. It felt a carbon copy of 2020 where they finished exactly even on wins and losses and points for and against, minus the Shaun Johnson highlights.
The club is, without any doubt in the world, in a better position right now than it was heading into the season.
The back ended contracts are gone, the roster has been levelled out and they were able to attract the game's most sought after young coach and three superstar signings.
On paper they probably had no right to finish as high as ninth. On the other hand it was only the Sharks who stopped themselves from adding yet another final's appearance to the record books.