SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 11: William Kennedy of the Sharks celebrates victory during the round 14 NRL match between the Cronulla Sharks and the Penrith Panthers at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium, on June 11, 2021, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

The Cronulla Sharks have made waves off-field for 2022, signing a new coach and a host of star players as they attempt to re-enter the top eight.

There is no doubt the 2021 season was a disappointment for the men in black, white and blue. Entering the season with expectations of another gritty season which would see them playing in the month of September, the end product was anything but.

Their defence could only be categorised as abysmal, while the fiasco in dumping John Morris out on his ear so early in the season virtually conceded the club were happy to call 2021 a write off and start planning for Craig Fitzgibbon’s arrival in 2022.

Still, Josh Hannay had them in contention for the finals, but their defence, second half fade outs and lack of overall continuity let them down time and time again before they eventually missed the cut for the finals, with the last two spots going to the Newcastle Knights and Gold Coast Titans.

The embarrassing season needs to be rectified in a hurry given the players they have brought in, led by Cameron McInnes, Dale Finucane and of course, star utility back Nicho Hynes who was a booming success in replacing Ryan Papenhuyzen for a large chunk of the 2021 season.

SUNSHINE COAST, AUSTRALIA - MAY 24: Dale Finucane in action during a Melbourne Storm NRL training session at Sunshine Coast Stadium on May 24, 2021 in Sunshine Coast, Australia. (Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

But that doesn’t mean this is all written in stone. A lot will still need to go right for the men from the Shire under a rookie coach.

Here are the burning questions which will shape the Sharks’ season.

How good is Craig Fitzgibbon?
The coaching debacle at the Sharks left a big mark on their 2021 season. Why the club went to a new option for 2022 and practically wrote off 2021 so early we will only really find out during 2022.

That reason - Craig Fitzgibbon.

Long touted as the next NRL coach in the making, he will now need to have a monstrous season with his new club, and in part new roster, to make the club's decision to blow up 2021 worth it.

He has plenty of issues to fix as he gets his feet under the desk, but with a long apprenticeship under Trent Robinson in a successful system, you could only imagine he is going to find a way to get it right.

Can Nicho Hynes play halves consistently at NRL level?
This is a tough one to answer, because frankly, anyone can do anything in the Melbourne system.

We have seen Craig Bellamy transform average plodders into excellent first graders and even State of Origin players in his unbelievably well-oiled Melbourne machine.

NRL Rd 11 - Raiders v Storm
CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - MAY 22: Nicho Hynes of the Storm shares a laugh with a team mate after the warm-up before the round 11 NRL match between the Canberra Raiders and the Melbourne Storm at GIO Stadium, on May 22, 2021, in Canberra, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

That said, Hynes is one hell of a special talent.

To go from relative obscurity to one of the best in the game as quickly as he did was an emphatic rise, and proved those who have been high on Hynes for years right.

Sharks fans are rightly excited at his arrival, but the question on whether he is as good away from Melbourne is still up for debate, as it is with every player who leaves the club.

Not only that, but it could be argued he is yet to consistently play well in the halves. He has done it on occasion, but it wasn't his role in the Victorian capital.

It's a big gamble for the Sharks.

How does the forward pack line up?
This is where some of the signings don't quite make sense. With Cam McInnes and rookie Jayden Berrell arriving at the club, it was thought that possibly Blayke Brailey was on the outer in the Shire.

That has been squashed though, with the club signing the younger of two brothers to a new contract extension over the off-season.

It's now a question of how all the pieces fit together. It was thought McInnes would play lock, but Dale Finucane's arrival puts that into debate as well.

Finucane could play in the front-row of course, but that would create an exceptionally small middle third with Finucane and McInnes likely to be joined by one of the bigger players in Tody Rudolf or Braden Hamlin-Uele.

Something isn't adding up in the Shire, and while their depth is strong, it's a question Fitzgibbon needs to get right from the outset.

Can William Kennedy continue his 2021 form?
William Kennedy was undoubtedly one of the breakout stars of 2021.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 11: William Kennedy of the Sharks celebrates victory during the round 14 NRL match between the Cronulla Sharks and the Penrith Panthers at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium, on June 11, 2021, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

So good was he, that new signing Nicho Hynes, who did an excellent job replacing Ryan Papenhuyzen and, for a period at least, had a claim to potentially be the best fullback in the game based on form, will now play in the halves.

We have discussed Hynes above in this piece, but Kennedy's form could dictate where Cronulla end up this season.

The club have taken significant strides to fix problem areas, but Kennedy's ball-running and creativity needs to continue to go from strength to strength if they are going to play finals football in September.

There is no criticism of Kennedy here given his incredible 2021 season which saw him named the club's best player - and you'd have to think by a considerable distance all things considered - but all eyes will be on the number one this season given Hynes is in the team, and the options to play in the halves are plentiful.

Will Cam McInnes return to his best?
The single biggest problem for the Cronulla Sharks in 2021 was their defence and lack of ability to compete in games for 80 minutes.

As Zero Tackle analysis revealed, if every game during the 2021 season had of stopped at halftime, the Sharks would have been a top-four team. They were bottom-four for second half performance though.

The Sharks have certainly taken steps to address this though, bringing two world-class defensive players who both play big minutes in Cam McInnes and Dale Finucane.

McInnes is a tackling machine, and could well be the most important player for Cronulla in 2022 with his ability to play either lock or hooker.

But the Sharks signed him before he injured his ACL and missed all of what would have been his final season at the St George Illawarra Dragons.

All reports are that McInnes is training well in the Shire, but training is one thing.

WOLLONGONG, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 28: Cameron McInnes of the Dragons looks on during the round 15 NRL match between the St George Illawarra Dragons and the North Queensland Cowboys at WIN Stadium on June 28, 2019 in Wollongong, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Doing it on the park week to week is another, and if he can't get back to his best - and by best, I mean workmanlike, 50 or more tackles per game - then the purpose the Sharks most badly need him for will be lost.

1 COMMENT

  1. That is one of the more perceptive analyses of Cronulla’s future that I have read.

    Small pack with limited go-forward could make it a long season for Nicho and the backs. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

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