The Cronulla Sharks are fast becoming the real deal in season 2024.

Sorting the facts from fiction in the NRL is a tough endeavour at times, but what had become clear over the first nine weeks is that the Sharks were putting together a strong season.

All told, eight wins from nine games with only a solitary slip up is a tough thing to do no matter what the strength of your schedule is.

And yes, Cronulla did have what could be considered an easy run through the first two months of the season. Their toughest games, on paper at least, should have been a Round 1 trip across the Tasman to play a New Zealand Warriors side who are struggling badly, and games against the Canberra Raiders away, North Queensland Cowboys and South Sydney Rabbitohs.

The Cowboys and Rabbitohs are flat lining, the Raiders didn't have Jamal Fogarty and, as mentioned, the Warriors have been poor.

That doesn't mean winning eight from nine was a straightforward feat though for Craig Fitzgibbon's side who, for the last two seasons, have had their way with teams finishing under them on the table, but struggled more often than they haven't when tasked with the competition's top teams.

Nowhere was that clearer than their poor elimination final fadeout last year at home against the Sydney Roosters with poor defence and mistakes compounding their issues through the contest that ultimately ended their season.

The Sharks couldn't have done much more through the first nine weeks, but still had their doubters heading into an incredibly tough three-week run - the Melbourne Storm away from home, the Sydney Roosters at Magic Round, and the Penrith Panthers to follow that. You could tack on the Parramatta Eels with a returning Mitchell Moses and Brisbane Broncos away from home to the end of the three weeks to make it a five-week stretch which would determine whether we could start talking about Cronulla as premiership contenders.

After just two weeks of the stretch, you could almost say they are now officially in that conversation.

While the wins were very, very different in the way they went about them, the Sharks managed to get the Storm away from home without Nicho Hynes last week, before beating the Roosters in Brisbane on Saturday.

That win over the Sharks was particularly impressive given they were without Hynes.

One of the common criticisms levelled at the Sharks over the last two and a bit seasons has been that Hynes is simply a one-man team. That isn't totally true, but taking away some of the hyperbole, the theory certainly does have merit.

It has certainly been clear over that journey that Fitzgibbon's side have been short a key middle third forward, and it has been widely called that the men from the Shire will be a better side following the arrival of released New Zealand Warrior Addin Fonua-Blake for next year.

That is still true, strictly speaking, but maybe it will be adding to a higher base than the one most would have tipped the Sharks to be at - essentially, another top eight finish without being overly impressive.

That theory now needs to be rethought in a big way, even if their defence did struggle to contain the Roosters on Saturday.

Roosters' captain James Tedesco paid credit to the Sharks in his post-game press conference, saying they have a good balance.

"Yeah, they are probably the most consistent. That's why they are sitting at the top of the table. They have a really good balance across their team and have had some really good wins this year," Tedesco said.

"Their attack showed. As Robbo [Sydney Roosters' coach Trent Robinson] said, it's disappointing to let in so many points, but they played some good footy."

Suncorp Stadium
   Crowd: 48,934

It's defence which will no doubt be the order of the day for the Sharks. As mentioned, they let in 30 points against the Roosters, and Fitzgibbon kept himself grounded post game, suggesting that his side went backwards despite the win.

"I thought we went backwards a little bit tonight but that was because of the quality of their performance in parts. We are improving though, we are getting better, but there is a long way to go. We will need to be better again next week," Fitzgibbon said.

He did acknowledge though that his side had been "under the pump" throughout the game and was happy with the win.

"It was a bit more adversity, a different way of winning. I thought we were under the pump for the most part, but still kept hanging in and found a way. That was the most pleasing part," Fitzgibbon said.

"I don't think we were as good as we have been in the last few weeks but I think they put us under pressure and made us feel that way, so pleasing to get out of it."

The Sharks have their own challenges coming up in the next few weeks with Nicho Hynes likely to be picked in the New South Wales State of Origin side by new coach Michael Maguire.

He could yet be joined by Jesse Ramien and Cameron McInnes which will put a dent in Cronulla's fortunes, although not for the Penrith clash next weekend.

Given their win over Melbourne without Hynes though, maybe losing the star man isn't as much of a blow as it once was.

There is little doubt the Sharks have improved in all elements, and their structure is far better. Daniel Atkinson replacing Hynes last week was fantastic, but it's in the forwards where the club's development is most evident, with Thomas Hazelton leading the charge.

The continued evolution of Kayal Iro, as well as the impact Siosifa Talakai has been providing off the bench also shows the development of Fitzgibbon, who up until the last month or two had been unwilling to make the change that most had been calling for.

Regardless of anything, the common perception was that if the Sharks could win two out of three in this immediate stretch, and either three or four out of five once the matches against Parramatta and Brisbane were thrown in, then they would be difficult to leave out of the premiership conversation.

They are already there for the first part.

Beat Penrith next week and we might just have a real contender on our hands.

PointsBet Stadium
   Crowd: 13,500