A Shallow Dive into the 2022 Cronulla Sharks

Your men’s Cronulla Sharks finished the season in second place on the ladder with an 18-6 record and +209 points difference. It was only the sixth Sharks team to finish on the front row of the grid in their history. The other second placed finishers include 1973, 1978 and 1997. Cronulla left the post-season in straight sets with a loss at their home construction site to the Cowboys, 32-30 in golden point, and then more comprehensively, 38-12, against the Rabbitohs in week two.

Scoring 573 points, the Sharks only had the seventh best offence in the league, but conceding 364 points meant they had the third best defence. At 23.9 points scored per game, it’s the fifth best Sharks attack in franchise history (behind 1999, 2002, 2016 and 2020) and the defence was the Sharks’ second best in the NRL era (behind 1999, thirteenth in history). Their Pythagorean expectaton was for 16.8 wins, a little below their actual winning percentage and so good for a regression next year.

The Cronulla Sharks will join the NRLW next year.

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

Cronulla has done a reasonable job of transitioning from their premiership-winning veteran side into a new era. The last remnants of the 2016 crew will have their contracts expire this season and the men that Cronulla expect to take them forward are signed up for multiple years. Then they’ve layered on top of this a risk in putting the house on new coach Craig Fitzgibbon – who comes with wraps but what are they worth really? – and Nicho Hynes… he will need to find his footing in a new environment, shoulder the burden of being The Man and find new depth to his game. He won’t be able to blow a 3 or 4 man overlap every week

One of the key deciding factors in how 2022 pans out for Cronulla will be who takes the big steps up into the limelight. Alternatively, they may all play well, grinding out an existence that sees them finish sixth to tenth and, due to the lack of splash, attract very little attention in doing so but the foundations are laid for the Sharks’ next era.

I was way unders on what the Sharks could do. I thought if they were going to do anything other than trip over the line into the finals in their current form, it wouldn’t be until next year at the earliest. Good for them.

What happened

The early finals exit was disappointing but this year was at least proof of concept for the Sharks, given a rookie coach and a largely unheralded roster. Last year’s board decision to move on from John Morris – something that I thought was, at best, risky – and trash the season has been justified. Even though Morris’ new club is playing in a preliminary final, largely the same Sharks have gone further up the ladder and while Cronulla had an easy draw and they got lucky, the Sharks still won the bloody games.

Coach Factor is the gap between a player’s actual performance and their pre-season projection, summed up over a season and normalised against league average, of which half is attributed to the head coach. While individual seasons can be up and down, over time, the good coaches get more out of their players than expected and accumulate Coach Factor and the bad ones don’t.

Morris did a good job with the troops he had but Fitzgibbon has done better still. Given those relatively small sample sizes, the appointment is looking like a good one, although we will not be able to concludde this with any certainty until Fitzgibbon either wins a premiership or is fired in ignominy.

Fitzgibbon won’t be able to maintain this rate (Bellamy averages 4.3 and Wayne Bennett 3.2 since 2016) unless the Sharks become the new Panthers (Cleary has averaged 7.2 over the last three seasons but averaged -4.2 in the three years prior). Anthony Seibold began his career with a similar number at Souths before embarking on a disaster so bad at the Broncos, the reverberations are still being felt to this day, so there is still potential downside. Fitzgibbon has shown his hand and we will have to see how the league responds next season and, in turn, how he responds to that.

There’s always next year

The trick for the Sharks will be iterating and building on this year to create something more resilient in the next. There are plenty of mitigating factors in their straight sets exit from the finals – new coach, newish and inexperienced team, shapes that are both as precise and fragile as clockwork, being a field goal away from seeing a preliminary final – that we can overlook as a bet with house money that just didn’t pay off.

Neither those mitigating factors nor a saloon passage of a draw will be there next year. At the very least, there will be mean regression acting as a handbrake on the 2023 campaign. As a Top Team, the Sharks will play the role of Manly this year, with (inexplcaibly) plenty of free to air timeslots against the big market teams. Expectations have been raised and it will not surprise me to hear the usual talking heads putting the Sharks in the premiership conversation.

I think they’re going to miss Andrew Fifita more than they realise. The sooner they can convince Warrington or Catalans to sign Wade Graham, the better. I’m not sure if Matt Moylan can be as effective as he was this year, now that the NRL has had a good look at that mercurial but slick left side attack. I’d like to think Nicho Hynes will take another step forward and Talakai can heal whatever wounds he was carrying and dominate again. There are challenges but none that are insurmountable for a team that’s serious about moving forward.