BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 28: Sharks coach Craig Fitzgibbon watches his players warm up during the round eight NRL match between the Brisbane Broncos and the Cronulla Sharks at Suncorp Stadium, on April 28, 2022, in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Earlier this week, Zero Tackle published my top five recruits for 2022.

Full disclosure: only on-field recruits were taken into consideration.

I fully believe that Nicho Hynes has outperformed each and every other recruit across 25 rounds plus a finals game, but I also believe the true best recruit for 2022 comes off-field.

We've seen two teams rise from the ashes that were their respective 2021 seasons to finish in top four spots: The Sharks and the Cowboys.

It's no coincidence that both have appointed new coaches who oversaw shifts in culture, process and playing roster.

Todd Payten and Craig Fitzgibbon will battle it out for Coach of the Year honours and are neck and neck for the true recruit of the year.

For mine, by the narrowest of margins, it's Sharks coach Craig Fitzgibbon who can lay claim to the most important signing of 2022.

With the greatest of respect to the 2021 Sharks, the players and the staff, the cub was an absolute mess.

They limped into finals in 2019 and 2020 only to be turfed in Week 1.

They sacked the supremely likeable but underdelivering John Morris and spent all of 2021 in the headlines as such.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JULY 25: Sharks coach John Morris talks in the post match press conference after the round 11 NRL match between the Cronulla Sharks and the St George Illawarra Dragons at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium on July 25, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

The salary cap was an absolute shambles with yesterday's heroes chewing up a massive portion of the salary cap.

Talented players failed to deliver on their undoubted promise. Blayke Brailey's game stagnated, Siosifa Talakai went backwards and the usually dependable Toby Rodolf seemingly forgot how to tackle.

Underperforming and largely unavailable Shaun Johnson was supposedly promised a big-money contract extension and Sharks fans were facing another year at Kogarah.

2018 (the last time the Sharks were relevant) superstar Matt Moylan literally limped into the new season on a massively reduced contract. There were genuine doubts if he would even get on the park.

Premiership-winning halfback Chad Townsend was shipped out after a horror start to 2021.

The only thing that kept Sharks fans going through the dark times of 2021 was the promise of Craig Fitzgibbon's arrival.

The most sought-after rookie coach and a man who had turned down opportunity after opportunity in favour of the right job offer. In 'Fitz' the Sharks landed their big fish.

Despite dedicating himself to the Roosters he set out to re-shape the Sharks' dour squad.

He landed a marquee signing in Nicho Hynes. In Sharks circles the signing was celebrated as a genuine get.

Outside the Shark fan base opinions were split. Could Hynes shift back into the halves? Could he take charge of a side? Could he survive outside of the Storm system?

Fast forward 16 and-a-bit months and the only thing standing between Nicho Hynes and a Dally M medal is the ridiculous form of Ben Hunt. it's a literal coin toss between the two but from there the gap will be massive.

Nicho's arrival has completely changed the way the Sharks play their footy. Gone are the days of five hit ups and a bomb on repeat.

Hynes and his born-again halves partner Moylan have turned the Sharks into genuine entertainers. Blayke Brailey has re-found his confidence and form aften being unburdened of out of form halves.

NRL Rd 2 - Sharks v Eels
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 19: Nicholas Hynes of the Sharks runs with the ball during the round two NRL match between the Cronulla Sharks and the Parramatta Eels at PointsBet Stadium, on March 19, 2022, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

The aforementioned Sifa Talakai has enjoyed a majestic season. After being shifted into the centres his form has been so destructive that he was called up to play Origin.

Few will forget the absolute bath he gave poor Morgan Harper in the pouring Thursday night rain in the Shire. Despite some uneducated posts across social media, Talakai has been incredible almost week in and week out since that ten out of ten performance.

Toby Rudolf has emerged as a wrecking ball prop whose defence has improved dramatically. He attributes the change to the incoming manager and a signing Fitzgibbon was almost solely responsible for landing, Dale Finucane.

2021 lacked leadership. Craig Fitzgibbon went all in on one of the game's most respected figure in Finucane. Not only did his arrival bring with him leadership and over 200 games of experience but he brought with him a defensive resolve the Sharks lacked since the Flanagan years.

Every single player, to a man, has improved defensively across the Sharks line. Fitzgibbon's defensive coaching experience while at the Roosters combined with one of the game's elite defenders in Finucane is no coicidence.

Fitzgibbon also had the bravery, as a rookie no less, to play incoming star recruit Cameron McInnes from the bench.

A player of the former Dragon's stature and wage would have expected to start most weeks but Fitzgibbon made the decision that benefited the Sharks most. McInnes is enjoying arguably a career-best season as a result.

NRL Rd 4 - Sharks v Knights
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 01: Cameron McInnes of the Sharks makes a break during the round four NRL match between the Cronulla Sharks and the Newcastle Knights at PointsBet Stadium on April 01, 2022, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Then there's the emergence of Royce Hunt, the left field signing of speedster Lachlan Miller and the exciting debuts of future stars Kade Dykes, Kayal Iro, Jesse Colquhoun, Thomas Hazelton, and the aforementioned Miller.

The Sharks managed to finish in the top two and earn a home final after missing the finals in 2021. Their first-choice halfback is favoured to win the player of the year award. In 2021 their first-choice halfback was playing NSW Cup before being released early.

Everything about the club feels different. It's all down to the arrival of Fitzgibbon.

Even if the Sharks are bounced out of the finals this Saturday night by the Bunnies, 2022 has been a resounding success.

They're a year or two ahead of where they have any right to be.

As for 2023; all of the Sharks rivals are losing stars next year. The Eels, Panthers and Cowboys are all losing run on players.

The Sharks are in a position where they will likely only lose two (potentially) three retiring players whilst bringing in potential star in Oregon Kaufusi.

With the greatest of respects to Andrew Fifita, Aiden Tolman and the possibly departing Wade Graham, I can't see a spot in the 17 next season.

It's obvious that players want to play for Fitzgibbon. Ronaldo Multialo has said as much by declaring that off-contract players are willing to take below-market value contracts to continue building something special in the Shire.

The step forward the Sharks have made in 12 months is unheard of. I am one of the club's biggest fans and I had us just scraping into the eight in the pre-season predictions.

Instead, the Sharks are one game away from a preliminary final with a bright future.

The club's feeder side, the Newtown Jets, secured the NSW Cup minor premiership and plays for a grand final spot this Saturday afternoon. Centre Kayal Iro was named NSW Cup player of the season and figures to play a huge role in the first grade squad moving forward.

All of the Sharks youngsters have re-committed to the club with Kennedy, Katoa, Ramien and Talakai all rumoured to be close to penning extensions.

No one person has had more of a positive effect on their football side in 2022 than Craig Fitzgibbon.

1 COMMENT

  1. Dan, you make a compelling argument. I’m no Bunnies fan, but I can see Jason Demetriou as competition for Fitgerald.

    He has had to cope with the team losing Adam Reynolds, win the respect of a squad that (rightly) would have seen him as a step-down from Wayne Bennett, and also manage a bunch of monster egos. In addition, he has had to face up to a Board and fans that expect Souths 2022 to be just as good as Souths 2021.

    If you were a Cowboys supporter, you could make out a compelling case for Todd Payten. He recruited a half-back rejected by Cronulla and a five-eight rejected by Brisbane, and has built a team of no-name players into a side that is only one game away from a grand final.

    If Souths win the comp, I’ll vote for Demetriou. If North Queensland win, I’ll vote for Payten. If neither, I could be persuaded by your arguments.

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