With Sunday evening’s 22-14 win over the Warriors, the Cronulla Sharks secured the most unlikely of finals spots.
On paper you look at a side containing Shaun Johnson, Andrew Fifita and you’d think the Sharks are about where they promised to be, however with a deeper dive it’s almost ridiculous that Cronulla will feature in the 2020 finals.
Fox Sports analyst, and pretty successful footballer, Cooper Cronk said the Sharks would finish 16 after the COVID-enforced break. He was not alone. The vast majority of experts had the Sharks finishing outside the eight and more likely to be dragged into a battle to avoid the wooden spoon than compete for a finals spot.
Although I had the Sharks finishing in 8th position (Ding! Ding! Ding! Looking good) I certainly can’t blame the experts for placing the Sharks much further down the ladder.
First and foremost, Cronulla are playing with a reduced salary cap in 2020, just as they had in 2019. You won’t catch too many fans of opposing teams shedding tears for the Sharks, who absolutely brought this penalty upon themselves.
Years of mismanagement, blatant ignorance of previously imposed penalties and pure stupidity all combined to form the perfect storm of bad decisions. The salary cap breaches that resulted meant the Sharks were left $350,000 under the cap in 2019 and 2020.
Just as an aside; they made finals during both years of the penalty.
Although it was self imposed, $350,000 is no small penalty. That’s a serious upgrade for a young player, or say, hypothetically, about the contract one of 2020’s form centres Josh Morris would command.
The Sharks were forced to shed Josh Morris, who has gone onto provide some scorching form for the tri-colours. This hardly came out of nowhere either as Morris was in the top three performers for the Sharks in 2019.
Then there was the moment that sunk Sharks supporters hearts across the fan base.
Just days after Josh Morris forced the club’s hand into releasing the star centre (despite the fact the Sharks literally extended his NRL career by offering him the two year deal; I’m not bitter at all) news broke that Bronson Xerri would miss not only the season but possibly never step back on a Rugby League field again.
Yet again, no tears or complaints, but the Sharks not only lost their star attacking weapon, they had to continue to pay him. To this day they’re still paying Xerri (within the cap) whilst he can’t even so much as train or contribute in any way.
I’m not sure what sort of pay packet Xerri is currently on, but even at $150,000 that means the Sharks are playing at least half a million dollars under the cap.
The Sharks are also operating well below the NRL average off the field having appointed John Morris as coach in 2019. He is, by far, the least highly paid full-time coach within the competition.
Again, a decision that the Sharks made, but yet another reason why Cronk and the like had the Sharks missing the eight.
Then there’s the fact that the Sharks have around $1.4-$1.6 million sitting largely on the sideline in the form of Matt Moylan and Andrew Fifita.
Two players who were monumental in making the Preliminary Final in 2018, Fifita and Moylan have been reduced to short stints on field in 2020. Moylan would have missed even more time if not for the COVID break. Talk was that his season was over many months ago.
Fifita has recently returned and has shown great passion and fight, however many thought that with the Sharks pack losing the likes of Paul Gallen and Matt Prior, that they would need Fifita to play big minutes almost every week.
It’s also worth pointing out that the majority of the current Sharks squad is made up of the team who took the club’s feeder team, the Newtown Jets, to the Grand Final double last year.
Kennedy, Katoa, Ronaldo, Trindall (or Tracey who played for the Bears last year), Rudolf, Brailey, Talakai, Hunt (Mounties), Sorenson, and Wilton all ran out for the Sharks in the past fortnight. They were all NSW Cup players last season.
Even now I cannot believe that the Sharks are going to play finals footy in 2020.
Shaun Johnson has lifted his game to another level, but it’s the incredible development of the club’s younger players that has seen them arrive in knock out footy well ahead of schedule.
Siosifa Talakai has proven to be the bargain buy of the year having transferred across form the Jets contract list. Toby Rudolf may win rookie of the year. Ronaldo and Katoa are scoring RIDICULOUS tries for fun. Will Kennedy has been brilliant in patches. Blayke Brailey is one of the game’s premier young players.
Royce Hunt has been a revelation and has earned a contract extension as a result. In fact only Trindall remains off contract with two rounds to go. Considering the salary cap restraints and money tied up in big name players, that’s almost unheard of.
During the Covid break it was clear that everything had to go right for the Sharks to play finals footy.
Nothing could be further from the truth having lost Morris and Xerri, then the injuries to big name (and money) stars. That said, they still managed to play finals footy.
The Sharks truly had no right to play finals in 2020. Yet here we are!