SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 08: Aaron Woods of the Sharks looks dejected during the NRL Qualifying Final match between the Sydney Roosters and the Cronulla Sharks at Allianz Stadium on September 8, 2018 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

It’s fair to say that 2021 has been a season of tough decisions made by those in charge at the Cronulla Sharks.

Earlier in the year the Sharks said goodbye to a 300-gamer and beloved long-term member of the club as John Morris was removed from his position in favour of the highly-touted Craig Fitzgibbon.

The decision split the fanbase in the Shire pretty much down the middle, with half recognising the massive wraps on the incoming Fitzgibbon and the other half backing the popular and overachieving Morris.

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Over a month on and it’s still the hottest topic before, during and after each and every single result. It has died down, however it won’t ever truly go away until Fitzgibbon either leads the Sharks to their second title win or is sacked for poor performance.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 19: Roosters assistant coaches Craig Fitzgibbon (L) and Jason Taylor (R) look on during a Sydney Roosters NRL training session at Moore Park on March 19, 2013 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

The debate has somewhat eased with most fans agreeing it’s best to move on as nothing can be done now, but yet again the fan base has been torn by news this past week.

Multiple reports have indicated that the Sharks have tapped three senior, highly-paid, off-contract players on the shoulder, indicating that they will not be offered contract extensions with Cronulla.

It’s even been suggested that if any of the three were to receive offers to move now that they will likely be released.

Those three players were of course World Cup Winners Shaun Johnson, Aaron Woods and Josh Dugan.

To be straight up, as a Sharks fan, I am completely supportive of the decision. All three players are moving toward the tail-end of their careers whilst taking up large amounts of salary cap space.

The Sharks signing of Nicho Hynes is a marquee signing we haven’t seen in the Shire for a long time.

Shaun Johnson‘s signing was massive, but it was realistically a one-team race. The Sharks had the cap space and a spot in the halves available that no other team could really match.

Nicho Hynes was courted by multiple clubs and CHOSE us. He chose the Sharks and he chose Craig Fitzgibbon.

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)

At only 24 year’s of age, his signing goes a long way to refreshing a squad that continues to make the eight and not much more.

The Hynes signing, combined with not fighting to keep Chad Townsend, and now this report, indicates that the Sharks have both learned from previous mistakes and are now looking very obviously towards the future.

Toby Rudolf (25), Siosifa Talakai (24), Connor Tracey (24) and William Kennedy (24) have all been re-signed rather than the Sharks heading into the market place to offer overs for ageing players as in previous years.

To their credit, I believe all three of Woods, Dugan and Johnson have copped unfair slack in the media, and throughout the fanbase.

Shaun Johnson was the NRL try assist leader in 2020 despite a bog average Sharks outfit surrounding him. He was one of the players of the competition and was, by far, the Sharks’ best.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – JUNE 30: Shaun Johnson of the Sharks passes during the round 15 NRL match between the Canterbury Bulldogs and the Cronulla Sharks at ANZ Stadium on June 30, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Aaron Woods hasn’t let anyone down after moving across from the Bulldogs. By all reports he has helped mentor the younger forwards who will be charged with taking the Sharks into the next era.

Josh Dugan has been a big presence on and off the field during his time in the Shire. He was the club’s biggest star during an overseas trial trip in 2020. Dugan cops a bad wrap and suffered from extensive injuries too, and in 2019 was the club’s best performer alongside fellow centre Josh Morris.

That said, all three have seen better days despite being on big contracts this season.

Watch the Sharks releases discussed via Rugby League Outlaws

That is why I believe the Sharks have made the best decision. Fan-ship of the players aside, this is a business and the game is changing.

It’s faster than ever before and the Sharks need to free up both roster spots, and more importantly salary cap space, to attract faster and younger options for Fitzgibbon to build around.

I have the sneakiest of suspicions that Aaron Woods may be offered a one-year deal if there are no takers in November. Woods on a highly-reduced deal is a good player to have at training and can still do a job. He’d not be blocking the development of a Franklin Pele or Braden Hamlin-Uele, but would still be well worth his roster spot.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND – JUNE 29: Aaron Woods of the Sharks looks on during the round 16 NRL match between the New Zealand Warriors and the Cronulla Sharks at Mt Smart Stadium on June 29, 2018 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

I also have a more than sneaky suspicion that Fitzgibbon is clearing the decks, and a centre spot, for a certain off-contract (at the end of 2022) Roosters centre.

Said centre can also play in the halves in 2023, with Matt Moylan likely to be offered a bridging one-year deal in the meantime.

‘Fitz’ seems to have mapped out the future. That took a detour when Adam Reynolds decided to move north rather than slightly south, but the signing of Hynes was a blessing in disguise.

For much of the fanbase it’s tough to say goodbye to three big personalities, with Shaun Johnson especially being supported, but it’s these tough decisions that the club need to make to move forward.

Only time will tell but I think – and this is tough to type as a Sharks fan as it doesn’t happen often – that the decisions makers have this spot on!