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)

Not often can a bottom-eight club lose its only premiership halfback, as well as a 32-Test veteran five-eighth in the same off-season and expect to return to finals action the next year. Such is the predicament of the Cronulla Sharks.

Their 2016 premiership side is widely known as the oldest premiership side ever, and the club continues to shed experience and age to provide greater opportunity for their exciting youngsters and handy acquisitions.

With the confirmed departures of Shaun Johnson, Chad Townsend, Josh Dugan as well as the expired contracts of Aaron Woods and Will Chambers, the Sharks have a few empty squad spots for 2022, coinciding with their first period of greater salary cap flexibility since their premiership.

The dark days

Since their Shane Flanagan days, the Sharks have dealt with a raft of salary cap issues, notably penalties as a result of salary cap breaches as far back as 2013, as well as their famed “Big six contract mess”.

During that time, star youngsters Kurt Capewell, Jayden Brailey, Kyle Flanagan have walked to other clubs, the club’s best star outside back Bronson Xerri was suspended after using performance enhancing drugs, Nene MacDonald played just two games in two years and former player and first-time coach John Morris was shown the door in just about the most disrespectful manner possible.

It’s fair to say the Sharks have had a rough time since Flanagan left, even if John Morris admirably led the club to two finals series in his tenure and the club only falling as far as ninth since their 2016 premiership.

The well known ‘heavy end’ of the Cronulla salary cap seems almost behind us, with Andrew Fifita expected to medically retire, Matt Moylan’s contract expiring, Shaun Johnson moving on, Josh Dugan retiring and Aaron Woods leaving also.

Finally, Chad Townsend departs to the Cowboys. While these deals were mostly front-ended, Cronulla were faced with an extra $3.5m in their salary cap for 2022.

The solution: Youth and shrewd signings

First, they extended the contracts of exciting talents Will Kennedy (2023), Toby Rudolf (2024), Siosifa Talakai (2023) and Connor Tracey (2024).

During that time, new coach Craig Fitzgibbon and interim coach Josh Hannay worked to shape a better team for 2022, bringing in the attacking spark of Blues 18th man Nicho Hynes, the leadership and experience of Dale Finucane, and the dependability and technique of Cameron McInnes.

Shrewd roster work to avoid total rebuilds like Wests or Canterbury. They enter 2022 with an exciting team primed for yet another run deep into the finals.

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)

2022 - Cronulla Predicted Side

    1. William Kennedy: It seems like just yesterday that Kennedy made his debut in 2019 deputising for the often injured duo Moylan and Dugan. Since then, he has cemented his place at the back for the Sharks, scoring 14 tries and 14 try assists in 24 games this season, helping him onto the shortlist for Fullback of the Year. His dangerous running and passing game will go to a new level partnering with Hynes in 2022.
    2. Sione Katoa: The 24-year-old had a breakout season in 2020 where he scored 16 tries in 19 games. Despite falling victim to injuries numerous times in recent years, Katoa remains one of the league’s most athletic finishers and, as evidenced by his 32 tries in 48 games, scores tries for fun.
    3. Jesse Ramien: The Sharks 2021 shining light, he looks at home in a Sharks jersey again after his failed Novocastrian experiment. Tackling consistently at 85% efficiency, Ramien is also one of the game’s best running centres, averaging 140 metres per game and recording 101 tackle breaks this season. A mainstay on the Sharks’ right edge.
    4. SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 10: Jesse Ramien of the Sharks watches on during the round 14 NRL match between the Cronulla Sharks and the Wests Tigers at Southern Cross Group Stadium on June 10, 2018 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
    5. Connor Tracey: Formerly a South Sydney five eighth and halfback, Tracey became 2021’s Mr Fix-It, playing as a bench utility, in the halves, as a winger or centre, scoring 14 tries. Similar to 2021 Dally M Centre of the Year Matt Burton, Tracey is primarily a five-eighth who can shine in the centres, with a lethal step, a running and passing game unlike most centres’ as well as the ability to shift to fullback, wing, hooker or the halves should injuries strike.
    6. Ronaldo Mulitalo: Cruelled by the eligibility criteria, Ronaldo was due to make his debut for Queensland in the 2021 Origin series after Reece Walsh’s withdrawal. Possessing speed, aerial ability and a rate of 0.675 tries per game, Mulitalo is primed for a big try-scoring season for the Sharks and a potential appearance for Samoa in the World Cup later in 2022.
    7. Nicho Hynes: Lifted an NRL premiership and the State of Origin trophy without playing a minute in either. A fringe utility until this year, Hynes was close to Melbourne’s best player during their mid-season win streak, slotting seamlessly in for Ryan Papenhuyzen as he battled concussion, and later playing both halfback and five-eighth as Jahrome Hughes and Cameron Munster were rested or suffered injuries. A natural ball player recording 17 try assists and 7 tries starting in 18 matches, Hynes also kicks goals at a career percentage of 76.54%.
    8. Braydon Trindall: Just 22, Trindall started 2021 behind Townsend, Johnson and Moylan but kept a place on the interchange for most of the season. After injuries struck and the club released Townsend early, Trindall got the chance to start 10 straight games in the halves, scoring four tries, recording nine try assists and goal kicking at above 80%. While inexperienced, the kicking games of Hynes and Brailey will help Trindall ease into his first full season as a starting half, with Matt Moylan given a season’s extension to help develop Trindall’s game.
    9. Dale Finucane: Being a Blues representative, former Storm co-captain and being Craig Bellamy’s favourite player to coach of all-time says something about Finucane, who will not only bring his own quality to the club but help Craig Fitzgibbon to raise the standards of the whole club. Likely to be announced as a co-captain for 2022, Finucane will lead the Sharks forward pack getting through plenty of work in the middle.
    10. Blayke Brailey: Preferred by the club over his brother Jayden, Brailey’s skill out of dummy half will be invaluable for the Sharks in 2022. Averaged 40 tackles this season, he can be an effective one-two punch with Cameron McInnes running out of dummy-half.
    11. Toby Rudolf: Starting at either lock or prop in every game in 2021, Rudolf has established himself as a powerful front row forward setting the tone early in the game, averaging 120 metres per game and 32 tackles per game. An integral part of the Sharks’ front row rotation.
    12. Briton Nikora: Just 23 and already a New Zealand representative, Nikora burst onto the scene in 2019 and has established himself as a reliable back rower for the Sharks, recording 40 tackle breaks, 30 tackles per game and nearly 100 metres per game.
    13. Wade Graham: The Sharks’ current captain, Graham has played 259 games of first grade as well as 8 Tests for Australia and 6 matches for NSW. Early in his career, Graham was a half and continues to bring a handy passing and kicking game to his game. A potent attacking and defensive weapon, if he can overcome his issues with concussion, Graham can have a fruitful 2022 and potentially hit the 300-game milestone in 2023.
    14. Cameron McInnes: The forgotten man of rugby league after nearly playing for NSW in 2020. Signed for 2022 before the start of this season, McInnes fell victim to an ACL injury and was unable to play this season, but won back to back Dragons Player of the Year awards and was their 2020 and 2021 captain. Playing as a hooker and lock in the past (during Ben Hunt’s couple of months at hooker in 2020), McInnes brings the passing game of a hooker, averaged 120 run metres and 55 tackles a game at 98% efficiency in 2020. A huge acquisition for the Sharks.
    15. Matt Moylan: The former Australia and NSW star probably won’t be able to consistently play 80 minutes in the spine anymore after being plagued by injuries throughout his Sharks career, but can
      offer plenty off the bench. Once captain of the Penrith Panthers, Moylan was a brilliant running fullback and five-eighth consistently racking up over 100 metres and recording try assists most games in his glory days. Can play 30 to 40 minutes a game off the bench injecting a valuable kicking, passing and running game as a strike weapon for the Sharks.
    16. PENRITH, AUSTRALIA - JULY 13: Matt Moylan of the Sharks celebrates scoring a try during the round 18 NRL match between the Panthers and the Sharks at Panthers Stadium on July 13, 2018 in Penrith, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)
    17. Siosifa Talakai: Had an outstanding game in Round 19, scoring a try, breaking 8 tackles and running 214 metres. In 2022, Talakai has the potential to be a tackle-busying bench weapon if he can cement his place in the 17 with consistent performances.
    18. Braden Hamlin-Uele: Entertaining the NRL with his WWE celebration earlier this year, Hamlin-Uele has evolved into an effective small-minute impact forward in 2021, recording 132 tackle breaks in his past three seasons. Will bring energy and power to the Sharks’ 2022 campaign.
    19. Jack Williams: The second Jack Williams at the club, Williams broke into the Sharks’ starting team late in 2021 as a big-minute backrower or lock. Averaging 120 run metres while completing 598 tackles at 93% efficiency in 2021, Williams is a dependable bench forward.

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  1. Craig Fitzgibbon and the Recruitment/Retention committee need to twist a couple of arms to get Andrew Fifita and Wade Graham to retire.

    Fifita may be nice guy but 97 minutes in six games for 2021 shows he has lost the enthusiasm. 2016 was five years ago, and he’s simply too old and tired. Not worth $850K.

    Wade is another matter. Serious head damage is not going to fix itself and he needs to have that explained to him. By soldiering on he is not doing any good for himself or the club, or the image of Rugby League.

    Pay them both out. Even if their payments are still included in the 2021-22 cap (which I believe they would not be, given their injuries were sustained in the 2020-21 season) it would still be worth retiring the guys and letting the rest of the squad focus on the new season.

  2. Whoops, pressed “Post Comment” too quickly.

    The key point that I did not make was that of the sixteen clubs, the Sharks were the WORST for tackling in 2020-21. Unless Craig Fitzgibbon takes a broom to the defensive coaching staff, and the unless the squad members realize that defence wins matches, then it will be a long and unrewarding season for the club and its supporters.

  3. For Fifita, a serious throat injury which placed him in the ICU in 2021 sees him highly likely to medically retire (off the cap). Think Graham will get one more chance in early 2022 to get himself right after his concussions. If he can and avoids head injury in 2022 (maybe wearing a headgear), he’s still a terrific player and leader. If not, he too will be medically retired and exempt from the cap like Cordner. As for your point on defence, I think greater stability in the halves (and having neither of Townsend and Moylan as starting halves) will help defensively, and they have recruited McInnes and Finucane, two of the most reliable and strong defenders in the game who’ll likely play big minutes every game. If they can’t shore up their defence very little will.

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