SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – APRIL 03: Connor Tracey of the Sharks celebrates scoring a try with team mates during the round four NRL match between the Cronulla Sharks and the North Queensland Cowboys at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium, on April 03, 2021, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)
The Cronulla Sharks were a disappointment in 2022 – there is no other way to describe a season which at times showed so much promise.
A lack of fire to play 80 minutes on a weekly basis cost them dearly, with second-half fade-outs a regular occurrence, while their decision to go in a new direction on the coaching front just weeks into the season also clearly cost them.
But 2022 will see Craig Fitzgibbon arrive in his first coaching job, alongside a host of star recruits and other depth options who will have the Sharks primed for a potential push back towards the top eight.
That doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be straightforward for the Sharks, but their team on paper looks stronger than it did 12 months ago.
Here is their best.
Ins: 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), Locky Miller (2023), Ryan Rivett (2022)
SUNSHINE COAST, AUSTRALIA – MAY 24: Dale Finucane in action during a Melbourne Storm NRL training session at Sunshine Coast Stadium on May 24, 2021 in Sunshine Coast, Australia. (Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)
Outs: 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)
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)
Re-signed: Mawene Hiroti (2022), William Kennedy (2023), Matt Moylan (2022), Toby Rudolf (2024), Siosifa Talakai (2023), Aiden Tolman (2022), Connor Tracey (2024), Braydon Trindall (2023)
Jayden Berrell, Blayke Brailey, Andrew Fifita, Dale Finucane, Wade Graham, Braden Hamlin-Uele, Mawene Hiroti, Royce Hunt, Nicho Hynes, Matt Ikuvalu, Sione Katoa, William Kennedy, Cameron McInnes, Locky Miller, Matt Moylan, Ronaldo Mulitalo, Briton Nikora, Franklin Pele, Jesse Ramien, Toby Rudolf, Siosifa Talakai, Jenson Taumopeau, Aiden Tolman, Connor Tracey, Braydon Trindall, Jack Williams, Teig Wilton
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – JULY 25: Ronaldo Mulitalo of the Sharks celebrates winning the round 19 NRL match between the Cronulla Sharks and the North Queensland Cowboys at Shark Park on July 25, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
Who plays where?
The signing of Nicho Hynes makes this an interesting debate, because he set the world on fire in Melbourne last year when replacing Ryan Papenhuyzen.
However, the Sharks have made it abundantly clear that Hynes will be a half in the Shire.
It’s hard to begrudge that decision either, given the immense form William Kennedy displayed during 2021. In what could only be described as a coming of age year for the youngster, he was voted the player of the year for the club, and in truth, it probably wasn’t even close.
He well and truly deserves to continue his tenure in the number one jersey, but with halves options a plenty, he is going to be under the pump the moment his form drops, particularly if Hynes doesn’t work out like he is expected to in the halves.
The arrival of Matt Ikuvalu from the Sydney Roosters means there are too many first-grade starting quality wingers for the spots available on the Shire.
There is zero doubt, however, that Ronaldo Mulitalo is the first-picked winger. Picked in the Queensland Origin squad during 2021 before an eligibility problem ruined his debut, he is now in the New Zealand wider squad ahead of the World Cup at the end of the year.
His play on the wing saw him score 10 tries in 16 games before injury ended his season.
The other wing spot comes down to Ikuvalu or Sione Katoa, however, with Ikuvalu working under Fitzgibbon who was an assistant coach at the Roosters, and Katoa at times struggling defensively and with his ball-handling, it’s hard to see Ikuvalu not starting.
The centres are where the Sharks do appear a little short on options and depth heading into the new season, something which plagued them at times during 2021.
Jesse Ramien is the only recognisable centre in the top 30 and as a result will certainly be the first picked. A solid 2021 for Ramien needs to be matched though if Cronulla are to go to the next level.
GOLD COAST, AUSTRALIA – APRIL 21: Jesse Ramien of the Knights breaks away from the defence during the round 6 NRL match between the Titans and the Knights at Cbus Super Stadium on April 21, 2019 in Gold Coast, Australia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)
Some have suggested Ikuvalu could play in the centres which would then allow Katoa to retain his spot, but that’d be an enormous gamble given Connor Tracey’s only chance at a starting 13 spot is in the centres and he did a serviceable job there last year.
Another full pre-season under his belt should see him primed and ready to take the spot on the edge, although youngster Jenson Taumoepeau could push for a run at some point this season, while Mawene Hiroti provides backup in all of the backline positions.
Given Nicho Hynes will be overlooked for the number one jumper, he slots straight into the number six for the men in black, white and blue.
Braydon Trindall shapes as his most likely halves partner for the season after impressing during the back end of 2021.
If Tracey doesn’t play in the centres then he could well slot into the halves, while Luke Metcalf is still on a development deal but will throw a spanner in the works either following a promotion or at the point development players are allowed to take to the field.
Matt Moylan is the potential X-Factor here, and while it’s hard to find a spot for him in the run-on side, it’s also difficult to imagine him playing no football this season.
The Sharks are going to be playing small in the middle third, there is simply no doubting that.
The twin signings of Cameron McInnes and Dale Finucane overload their middle with smaller players, given Blayke Brailey will stop McInnes from playing hooker.
WOLLONGONG, AUSTRALIA – JUNE 28: Cameron McInnes of the Dragons looks on during the round 15 NRL match between the St George Illawarra Dragons and the North Queensland Cowboys at WIN Stadium on June 28, 2019 in Wollongong, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
It means the tackling machine will take the number 13 jersey, which pushes Finucane into the front row.
Braden Hamlin-Uele, Toby Rudolf, Aiden Tolman and Andrew Fifita are the other props vying for a starting spot, while their depth appears strong with Royce Hunt and Franklin Pele also in the squad.
Given the size they are playing with, the final front-row spot has to go to Hamlin-Uele though, just due to the style and size he plays with.
As mentioned, Blayke Brailey will be the hooker. There is no doubting that.
He has just been re-signed to a new contract and is clearly the Sharks’ future in the number nine jumper.
McInnes will provide backup in the case of injury striking, while Queensland Cup gun Jayden Berrell has also been brought to the club. It’s understood Rugby Sevens star Locky Miller also will be able to play either halves or hooker.
The second row may be the easiest spots in the side to pick. Wade Graham is back from a long-term concussion problem and will slot straight into the run-on side.
NEWCASTLE, AUSTRALIA – MAY 27: Wade Graham of the Sharks in action during the round 12 NRL match between the Newcastle Knights and the Cronulla Sharks at McDonald Jones Stadium on May 27, 2018 in Newcastle, Australia. (Photo by Tony Feder/Getty Images)
The other spot is Briton Nikora’s. He played 22 games in 2021, scoring four tries and becoming one of the best edge defenders in the competition.
Siosifa Talakai and the impressive Teig Wilton provide the back up should problems strike throughout the season.
Craig Fitzgibbon’s policy on playing a utility is yet to be seen, and as such, it’s difficult to predict whether the Sharks will choose to run with one or not.
In the modern game though, it seems impossible not too. If Locky Miller has a strong pre-season, he could surprise with a spot in Round 1, while Matt Moylan is also an option. We will take the more experienced Moylan at 14.
Siosifa Talakai is almost a certainty to be on the bench given his ability to play both centre and second-row.
The remaining two spots will go to bigger bodies. Toby Rudolf is certain to take one given his performances throughout the 2021 season, more often than not in the starting team at both lock and in the front row.
The remaining spot is likely to go to Aiden Tolman, but watch for Royce Hunt to stick his hand up throughout the season with strong reserve grade performances. Jack Williams too played plenty of football throughout 2021, and while the man who was once dubbed Paul Gallen’s replacement doesn’t have a spot in the best 17, he isn’t far away.
The best 17
1. William Kennedy
2. Matt Ikuvalu
3. Jesse Ramien
4. Connor Tracey
5. Ronaldo Mulitalo
6. Nicho Hynes
7. Braydon Trindall
8. Dale Finucane
9. Blayke Brailey
10. Braden Hamlin-Uele
11. Briton Nikora
12. Wade Graham
13. Cameron McInnes
14. Matt Moylan
15. Siosifa Talakai
16. Toby Rudolf
17. Aiden Tolman