NRL Rd 5 - Sharks v Wests Tigers
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 10: Ronaldo Mulitalo of the Sharks celebrates with his team mates after scoring a try during the round five NRL match between the Cronulla Sharks and the Wests Tigers at PointsBet Stadium, on April 10, 2022, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

The Cronulla Sharks were, without doubt, one of the NRL's biggest surprise packets in a 2022 season that had plenty of them.

Alongside the North Queensland Cowboys, the Sharks made the top four into something very different from what most had predicted during the pre-season.

Nicho Hynes led the way in the new-look side, coached by rookie Craig Fitzgibbon, but their straight sets exit in September goes to show exactly how far the men in black, white and blue have to go before they can consider themselves genuine contenders.

Some of that will come with experience, but some of it may need yet more new faces to line up for the men from the Shire.

So, if contract and salary cap issues were wiped out, who would be the one player the Sharks would love to steal?

Current squad

Jayden Berrell, Blayke Brailey, Jesse Colquhoun, Kade Dykes, Dale Finucane, Wade Graham, Braden Hamlin-Uele, Thomas Hazelton, Mawene Hiroti, Royce Hunt, Nicho Hynes, Matt Ikuvalu, Kayal Iro, Sione Katoa, Oregon Kaufusi, William Kennedy, Cameron McInnes, Lachlan Miller, Matt Moylan, Ronaldo Mulitalo, Briton Nikora, Jesse Ramien, Toby Rudolf, Sam Stonestreet, Siosifa Talakai, Siteni Taukamo, Jenson Taumoepeau, Connor Tracey, Braydon Trindall, Jack Williams, Teig Wilton

NRL Rd 2 - Sharks v Eels

Analysis

On paper, the Sharks squad looks nicely balanced with some tricky selection questions that Craig Fitzgibbon will have to answer as he heads into his second season as an NRL head coach.

Nicho Hynes is obviously the star of the show - a fact he made plainly obvious throughout the 2022 season. He went to the Sharks with plenty of question marks over his ability to play consistently in the number seven, and to do it outside of the Melbourne Storm system, but he passed with flying colours.

The wing and centre spots pick themselves, with all of Sione Katoa, Ronaldo Mulitalo, Jesse Ramien and Siosifa Talakai having exceptional seasons.

Elsewhere, Blayke Brailey wasn't quite at his best but still has a firm grasp over the number nine jersey on the Shire, while Teig Wilton, Briton Nikora and Wade Graham provide three strong second-row options.

Cameron McInnes and Dale Finucane lead the middle third for the Sharks, joined by Toby Rudolf, Braden Hamlin-Uele and Royce Hunt, to go with Jack Williams who missed most of last year through injury.

That said, the Sharks' first issue does appear to be that they are down on a genuine hard-hitting, starting-level forward. Hunt and Hamlin-Uele provide the size to their middle third that Rudolf, Finucane, McInnes and Williams don't, but neither player is on the level of some of the top enforcers floating around the competition, despite the enormous impact they were able to make at times throughout the 2022 campaign.

Both players feel as if they'd be better served coming off the bench against tiring forwards, while the Sharks find another option to start in the middle.

Five-eighth is another tantalising question for Cronulla. There is no doubting that Matt Moylan had what could be considered his best season since his Penrith days during 2022, managing to stay fit as he built a combination with Hynes.

But that doesn't mean it's not a problem for the Sharks, and finding the ideal partner for Hynes who is cool under pressure in the big games during September and October could well be the difference for Cronulla in going the next step.

On the back of an outstanding 2021 season, William Kennedy wasn't able to produce the same level of output in 2022 at the back for the Sharks in what could be the club's biggest single issue.

Kennedy will still hold a grasp on the starting number one jumper ahead of Lachlan Miller - who could be set for a departure - and Kayal Iro, who is a star of the future and showed glimpses of that during limited first-grade opportunities at the back end of the 2022 campaign.

That said, none of the trio scream premiership-winning fullback, and so it poses an intriguing dilemma for Cronulla in this situation, with three positions filled to a sustainable level, but not a premiership-winning one.

Options to steal

Option 1: Tom Dearden (North Queensland Cowboys)
The type of five-eighth the Sharks would go and steal is an important question, given how dominant Nicho Hynes is over the football.

Hynes averaged 61.42 touches of the football in 2022 compared to Matt Moylan's 44.92.

A difference of 15 receipts of the football may not seem all that much, but it simply wouldn't work to bring a dominant five-eighth into the side.

The Sharks signing an upgrade for Moylan might be important, but not if the style isn't going to complement Hynes.

Someone like Dearden would do just that. Slot into the kicking game where it's needed, but provide excellent ball-running, passing and rugby league IQ to help in controlling the park.

TOM DEARDEN
Halfback
Cowboys
2022 SEASON AVG
0.6
Try Assists
0.4
Tries
53.6
Kick Metres

Option 2: James Fisher-Harris (Penrith Panthers)
The Penrith powerhouse is in the best two props in the game alongside Canberra's Joseph Tapine, and has been for a number of seasons.

A key part of Penrith's back-to-back premiership push, Fisher-Harris is the sort of player who could turn Cronulla from a premiership threat into a proper, genuine contender.

Unlike Tapine, Fisher-Harris doesn't need huge minutes to get going, and that is what sets him apart in this dispute.

Cronulla already have big-minute players in Finucane, McInnes and Rudolf.

Fisher-Harris would provide impact at the start and end of games, and could simply go about his work without stressing about needing to play extended minutes.

J. FISHER-HARRIS
Prop
Panthers
2022 SEASON AVG
142.1
All Run Metres
0.2
Tries
1.4
Tackle Breaks

Option 3: Jarome Luai (Penrith Panthers)
If you're looking for non-dominant halves who can make the star of the show look good, then Luai is the man.

He gets a terrible rap at times for some of his antics on the field, but that shouldn't take away from the immense skill he can bring to any side he is part of.

There is a reason he was Samoa's most important player at the Rugby League World Cup, and why he has been part of a Penrith side who have won back-to-back premierships.

Luai complements Cleary nicely at the Panthers, while having the ability to take over where it's needed, and there is no reason he wouldn't do a similar - and upgraded - job at the Sharks.

His running game is clearly his best asset, and it would allow Hynes more time and space to do what he has done best over the last 12 months.

JAROME LUAI
Five-eighth
Panthers
2022 SEASON AVG
0.6
Try Assists
0.4
Tries
50.6
Kick Metres

Option 4: Ryan Papenhuyzen (Melbourne Storm)
While the lure to simply go and recruit the ‘best' fullback would be something that the Sharks could do in upgrading at the back, James Tedesco may not be the best fit for the men from the Shire.

The star Roosters' fullback would potentially take away too much from Hynes' game, given he does get involved in kicking and other elements.

Papenhuyzen, on the other hand, is one of the best supporting fullbacks in the competition, which appears to be a direct result of learning from Billy Slater, who may be the best of all-time in that department.

No fullback read the game better than Slater, and Papenhuyzen is starting to go down the same road in both attack and defence, playing in that Melbourne system which brings sustained success.

The winning culture could be used in the Shire too, while Papenhuyzen would also be linking up with ex-teammates Hynes and Finucane, making the swap all the more viable.

RYAN PAPENHUYZEN
Fullback
Storm
2022 SEASON AVG
1.2
Tries
0.8
Try Assists
3
Tackle Breaks

The verdict

This is a difficult one, because Cronulla don't necessarily need major upgrades, but the positions they ‘want' them in are all on an even keel.

Moylan was serviceable last year and would only get better with a strong forward leading the way, so this comes down to Fisher-Harris and Papenhuyzen.

Kennedy was strong in 2021, and with Iro and Miller pushing for the number one jersey, it does appear like the Sharks trio there may play better simply through pressure for minutes.

That leaves Fisher-Harris as the ultimate steal for Cronulla.

James Fisher-Harris

Be sure to check back in tomorrow as we take a look at the Gold Coast Titans.

1 COMMENT

  1. Fisher-Harris, Paulo, Campbell-Gillard… any of those high impact guys would be useful.

    Unfortunately for them, they have actually bought Oregon Kaufusi, who seems to be a short-minute, low impact, bench player.

    I suppose that is the trouble with signing a guy and having to wait twelve months before he transfers over. The club crosses its fingers and hopes he will either improve during that twelve months, and they will have picked up a guy in his prime, or at the very least, he won’t have gone backwards.

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