The Cronulla Sharks come into the 2022 season with everything to gain after a strong recruitment drive during the off-season, as well as the addition of a new coach.
Here is the full season preview for the men from the Shire.
2021 won't be remembered overly fondly by Sharks fans, despite missing the finals on points differential alone.
They never really got going. I'm still waiting for Shaun Johnson to fire. The Sharks' middle defence became a source of frustration for fans and coaching staff alike. The new rules absolute crippled the Sharks immobile pack.
Off-season distractions and underperforming stars dominated the early parts of the season. Ultimately though 2021 will be remembered as a much-needed shift that set the Sharks on a new path.
Jayden Berrell (2022), Kade Dykes (2022), Dale Finucane (Melbourne Storm, 2025), Nicho Hynes (Melbourne Storm, 2024), Matt Ikuvalu (Sydney Roosters, 2023), Jack Martin (2022), Cameron McInnes (St George Illawarra Dragons, 2025), Lachlan Miller (2023), Ryan Rivett (2022)
Will Chambers (rugby union), Josh Dugan (Retired), Shaun Johnson (New Zealand Warriors), Nene Macdonald (Leigh Centurions), Billy Magoulias (Warrington Wolves), Chad Townsend (North Queensland Cowboys), Aaron Woods (St George Illawarra Dragons)
Recruitment impactNicho Hynes headlines the arriving cast, which also includes Dale Finucane and Cameron McInnes.
More importantly than adding names, the Sharks have addressed their two weaknesses; middle defence and creativity in the halves. Finucane and McInnes are expert middle defenders and immediately improve the side.
Matt Ikuvalu is a real wildcard. Craig Fitzgibbon went to great lengths to ensure the try-scoring winger joined him in the Shire. There are talks his arrival will finally allow Ronaldo Mulitalo to shift into the centres.
The Sharks moved on players on big contracts in Josh Dugan, Aaron Woods, Shaun Johnson and Chad Townsend, which has allowed a desperately needed fresh start. It's also allowed for a more youthful squad overall.
Time to gel: The Sharks have completely changed up their system in one off-season. Nicho Hynes becomes the focal point in his return to the halves. Fans are going to have to be patient as this is a young side.
2022 really feels like a year to build toward something much bigger but with a return to their home ground and a fairly lean 2021, Sharks fans will want results early on. The Sharks kids were blown out in their opening trial despite a mouth-watering crop of talent. It will take time, but this side looks very capable.
Rookie head coach: Craig Fitzgibbon arrives at the club with tremendous wraps. Multiple clubs chased his signature, having done so for years, but it was Fitzgibbon who chose the Sharks.
That said, the fact remains he is still a rookie coach. He's served one of the game's best apprenticeships under Trent Robbinson at the Roosters, and has experience coaching Country Origin. Again, Sharks fans shouldn't expect Craig Bellamy in his first season but there is a real feeling of excitement following his arrival.
- Half solution: The big question surrounding the Sharks is who will partner Hynes in the halves. The answer to that question will also decide whether Nicho plays in the six or seven. Matt Moylan looks short odds to run out in the six for Round 1 following the suspension of Braidon Trindall.
Conor Tracey's day in the halves look done while Luke Metcalf has had an injury interrupted pre-season. Moylan's had big issues staying fit, so you'd have to imagine Trindall's time will come. Hynes and Trindall looks the long-term option but Fitzgibbon and co have to find the answer and quickly.
Key player: Nicho Hynes
Nicho Hynes may be the most important player in the competition. The Sharks have built their 2022 side, and hopes, around him. The pressure on this kid's shoulders is incredible.
Hynes had a magical 2021 season. I still maintain the Storm's fall coincided with Hynes being moved to the bench upon Ryan Papenhuyzen's return.
He had 17 try assists last season, a number he will be required to match (and surpass) if the Sharks are going to make a deep run come finals time.
Nicho's appearance in the All Star game, especially with the boot, calmed nerves in the Shire. To say he looked the part is an understatement.
Hynes is an incredible talent who has been charged with ushering in a new era for Cronulla. I'm backing him 100 per cent and expect him to go to a new level in 2022.
Big season for: Wade Graham
The Sharks need their captain to return to his very best in 2022 to be a real threat. Graham adds so much to the Sharks' left edge with his kicking and ball-playing games largely unmatched across the comp.
Graham endured a tough 2022 due to repeated concussions. Having rested up and worked on his technique, he'll be there in Round 1 (fitness permitting). Every Sharks fan will be happy to see him lead the side out.
The Sharks left side is always stunted when Graham is not there. The way he combines the halve, and most dangerously his centre, is a real point of difference for the black, white and blue.
His kicking game adds such a different angle of attack that the mere possibility of him dropping it on the boot causes second thoughts for opposition defenders.
If Graham is fully fit and firing then the Sharks instantly become a far more dangerous proposition.
Breakout star: Teig Wilton
The Sharks have a star on their hands in the form of 22-year-old Teig Wilton. The towering back rower may need to bide his time in Newtown colours early on but he'll see plenty of footy in 2022.
He largely filled a Mr Fix It role last season, filling in at centre, in the back row and even in the middle at times. He did absolutely everything asked of him very well.
With Graham and Nikora both capable of playing 80 minutes, it may be a few weeks but by Round 5, I'd be shocked if Teig hasn't made it impossible to leave him out.
Strangely, he may play less games in 22 than in 21 but I expect his output and importance to grow big time.
Also keep an eye on Ronaldo Mulitalo. If reports suggesting a shift into the centres are true, watch for his involvement to go through the roof.
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fixtures to watch
Round 2 vs Parramatta Eels: The return to Shark Park! It has been two seasons since the Sharks have run out in front of their home fans at Pointsbet Stadium. The trip to Kogarah was fun enough but not for a second did the atmosphere ever feel the same. A sold-out, albeit, at a reduced capacity Shark Prk, is set to welcome the Eels at 5:30 pm on a Saturday evening.
For the majority, it will be the first chance to see Hynes and Finucane in person for Sharks fans. Aside from the occasion are direct clashes that include Kennedy vs Gutherson, Moses vs Hynes, Finucane vs Brown and Rudolf vs Paulo.
Round 7 vs Manly Sea Eagles: A Thursday night clash between bitter beach rivals headlines Round 7. Sharks and Sea Eagles fans don't share the disdain for each other as with past generations, but the sides are not friendly.
Manly are undoubtedly the Sharks bogey side. Cronulla win this clash once every four years (2020, 21016) etc, having being belted by Turbo brilliance late in 2021. This is a game every Sharks fan, and I'd imagine player, circles when the draw is released. PointsBet should be rocking despite the family un-friendly timeslot.
- Round 21 vs St George Illawarra Dragons: Manly, and most recently the Storm, are bitter rivals for the Shire-based club, but the Dragons will always be the true rivalry. This will be the second meeting between the sides but the Sharks home game stands out for the fact a reduced capacity means minimal Dragons fans.
So many players have recently made the switch but the Sharks signed club captain Cam McInnes, while Aaron Woods went the other way. Jack Bird will return to the scene of his best season also. Throw form out the window, this is always a straight shootout between the two sides. This may have very real finals ramifications as well as the traditional bragging rights.
Sharks prop Toby Rudolf said "if we don't make finals this year, I'll be extremely disappointed. That's the bare minimum." I 100 per cent agree.
This Sharks roster should play finals footy. They're strong across the park and have a good blend of experience and youth. Importantly they've addressed their massive (middle defence) weakness from 2021.
That said, they're being coached by a rookie head coach and have entrusted a half turn fullback turn half with the keys to their attacking kingdom. There will be moments of frustration.
Ultimately if the Sharks don't return to the top eight then the first year of the new era will be looked upon as a letdown. I do feel though that 2022 is a year to establish, built and look back upon as the first year that brought future success.
They'll upset some sides but there will be the performances Sharks fans have grown to hate, i.e. the early rounds loss to the Dogs in 2021, where they should blow a side out but instead drop points.
With a much more balances salary cap and some monster names off-contract, look for Fitzgibbon to enter the player market and set up for a huge 2023 and beyond.