We have finally dispatched with the bottom eight and can begin our reviews of the (allegedly) best eight teams. From pre-season:
The Sharks’ 12-12 record and seventh place belied how well they played last season. Let down significantly by their goal kicking, the Sharks lost a record five games despite scoring more tries. While that’s a NSWRL/NRL record, I doubt that’s ever happened at any other time in football. The odds of it are simply astronomical. Tack on a couple of extra wins to last year’s total to appropriately set your expectations.
Cronulla should have the talent to comfortably make the finals in 2020. We probably won’t see anything much more interesting than that out of them unless a couple of the top clubs stumble.
With Paul Gallen retired, the team will have to adjust their production bias away from the forwards. I still have question marks on Bronson Xerri but his production last year was impressive and Braden Hamlin-Uele should probably be starting.
I was right to question Xerri, although that was coincidental as I obviously didn’t expect him to go down for doping, and Hamlin-Uele did end up starting. They made the finals, less comfortably than anticipated, and other than being a strange statistical anomaly for the second year running, we didn’t see much of interest out of them.
The Sharks won 10 games and lost 10 games. Along the way, they scored 480 points and conceded 480 points. Cronulla finished eighth of sixteen, beating the other teams in the top eight exactly zero times before exiting week one of the finals.
There’s been a few suggestions among the professional takesmen that the 2020 Sharks were the worst ever to play finals football. I think that this was even raised shows how low the bar for NRL analysis is.
Oh, how quickly we forget! Just last year, the Broncos had a losing record of 11-13-1, played one finals game and lost 58-0 to a team who were bundled out themselves the following week 32-0. The 2019 Broncos have an excellent case for being the worst finals team ever on these facts alone. I won’t bother looking any further back.
The reality is that the Sharks were perfectly average and in a sixteen team comp with a top eight finals system, average teams make the finals. It happens every year.
So let’s raise the bar by looking at the evolution of the Shark’s squad (see: How It All Works).
Here we see the build up of Cronulla’s only premiership winning squad. They relied on names you would be familiar with – Fifita, Barba, Lewis, Prior, Gallen, Leutele, Feki, Holmes and Graham – and played a style of football that was well suited to the environment of the time. Their prize was the 2016 premiership.
The premiership winning squad was perhaps not old but definitely “experienced”. Here we see the beginnings of a transition. We don’t need to look too closely at the actual numbers but rather look at the colours. The palette of the 2017 team, largely the same as in 2016, is considerably different to that of main contributors to the 2019 campaign.
And so to today. Fifita, Johnson, Dugan and Graham are long in the tooth while Townsend and Moylan (not pictured) are unlikely to be up to the task of winning the Sharks’ second premiership. While the transition is not yet complete, the names that will form the core of the next phase of the Sharks’ history is starting to form up. Rudolf, Talakai, Hamlin-Uele and Katoa are the start of something new.
We don’t know how far they’ll go as a unit. It will rely heavily on the club’s acquisitions for 2021 and 2022. Assuming Johnson only has one or two years of elite production left in him, then the whole spine needs serious and immediate consideration. The alternative is that, as other clubs improve, the Sharks will fall behind.
For mine, John Morris has not been properly tested yet. He came to the top job while expectations for the club were high and the aforementioned transition has resulted in performances slipping down to a more mediocre level. More than a few clubs have cleared the coaching decks in 2020, keeping the media’s focus away from the Shire. If Morris is to avoid scrutiny in 2021 and 2022, he needs to be continuing to develop the young talent at his disposal.
Fortunately for Morris, the Sharks’ feeder, the Newtown Jets, has played in the last two Canterbury Cup grand finals. In 2019, they won both the State Cup and the National Championship with almost identical last second chip and chases. The support provided from reserve grade has been both important and refreshing for the franchise. With the Kaiviti Silktails in Ron Massey Cup aligning themselves with the Jets in State Cup and in turn the Sharks in the NRL last year, this opens up a new and exciting pipeline for the Sharks to exploit.
Re-development of the Sharks’ home ground has dislocated the club this year and will into the immediate future but it has already paid handsome dividends, with Cronulla sitting on a hefty bank balance. Whether the club’s management is prudent with their money will dictate the club’s long term commercial future, which would otherwise be very bleak due to a small fanbase and constrained geography. I don’t hold high hopes because this is rugby league but the opportunity is there.
One sensible investment would be to use the money in the bank to fund a relocation to Perth and capture a large portion of Western Australia’s 2+ million potential fans. They won’t but it’s nice to dream that one of the clubs might show some ambition beyond their own backyard.