Don't Go In The Water: Why Cronulla Is A Legitimate Contender

The Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks have been a feature here early in the season for the wrong reasons in recent years. 

A 1-4 start in 2020 triggered discussions around a potential wooden spoon and speculation around John Morris’ job before they climbed into the Top 8 by Round 11, where they stayed through to the end of the season. 

Another slow start in 2021 prompted more concerns as the Sharks picked up only four wins throughout the opening 12 rounds. Their resurgence came too late this time around as the Titans snuck into the last finals spot ahead of them on points differential but once again, promising signs early in defeat eventually translated into winning footy.

In 2022, however, it’s all coming together from the beginning.

Outside of a last-minute loss to the Raiders in Round 1 and a 34-18 loss to the Storm that isn’t accurately reflected on the scoreboard, the Sharks have barely missed a beat to be 5-2 through seven rounds for 4th on the NRL ladder.

The Sharks kicked the season off among the teams expected to fight for a finals spot at 49.4% to make the Top 8. Plenty considered their 49.4% to be on the high side given the uncertainty around Nicho Hynes as a halfback, the integration of new players and a rookie coach in Craig Fitzgibbon taking over the side. However, now out to 83.6% and making it look easy most weeks, the Sharks are no longer fighting for a finals spot but have their sights set on the Top 4 (36.2%).

Punters- At TopSport, the Sharks are paying $1.95 to finish top four in 2022. 

Piling Up Points

Fitzgibbon put his faith into Hynes at halfback despite playing only one NRL game in the #7 jersey before this season and paired him with the ageing, injury-prone and relatively under-achieving Matt Moylan. That show of faith has produced one of the most dangerous attacks in the competition averaging 24.7 points per game right now.

Their numbers are ridiculous for a team that finished 8th in attack last season.

Punters- At TopSport, you can get $12 about a Sharks jumping from 9th in 2021 to minor premiers. 

The Sharks play fast. They move the ball and constantly ask questions of the defence with their 49.3 decoy runs per game. 

From one side of the field to the other, defenders are at risk of turning in on a decoy and creating space on the edges as the Sharks work through their 118 general play passes per game (2nd in the NRL). Aidan Tolman is a workhorse through the middle and leads the competition in decoys with 8.6 per game (min. 3 games). On the edges, Teig Wilton (6.6 per game) and Briton Nikora (6.4) are running excellent lines. Wilton, in particular, has developed exceptionally well in this area and was crucial to Siosifa Talaka's incredible individual performance in Round 7.

It’s Hynes at first-receiver averaging over 60 touches per game that is setting things up. He has exceeded expectations as a game manager and still has a lot of room to grow.  But Moylan, Jayden Brailey, Dale Finucane and Cameron McInnes all play a big part in how quickly the action Hynes sets up plays out with their ball-playing through the middle or at pivot. 

At the depth the Sharks backline plays and with their slingshot lines to the edge, Ronaldo Mulitalo, Siosifa Talakai, Jesse Ramien and Sione Katoa are having a field day out wide.

- Mulitalo is averaging a career-high 149 running metres per game while scoring six tries already this year. His 12 line breaks lead the competition.

- Talakai has thrown himself into State of Origin consideration following an incredible four weeks in the centres. He destroyed the Sea Eagles right edge in Round 7 to score two tries and hand out three try assists in a 30-minute period that will go down as one of the best ever. 

- Ramien has long been a destructive ball-carrier and is averaging 4.5 tackle breaks and 117 running metres per game. Notably, he has handed out five try assists in seven games this season after distributing only eight in the 74 games he played before Round 1.

- Katoa is an elite finisher in the corner with 37 tries in just 54 games. With five tries in only six games along with 141 running metres per game, this is the year for Katoa to establish himself as one of the game's premier wingers.

The Sharks are dominant in the right areas with the ball. Their yardage game is in the top half of the competition and they play with variety in attack few others can emulate. Every week it feels like a matter of time before they will crack the line and pile up the points. Encouragingly, the Sharks are also trending in the right direction without the ball which is where the premiership conversation begins and ends almost every year.

Punters- At TopSport, Cronulla is paying $7 to win their second premiership in club history.

Premiership Push

The Sharks are still on the outside of the Stats Insider futures model's premiership contenders but they're clawing their way up the list every week. Penrith Panthers and Melbourne Storm are quite clearly in a league of their own right now, but the Sharks are only just behind them on current form.

It's how they develop and whether or not they can maintain their current output throughout the year that is the great unknown. 

While we can be fairly confident in the Sharks attack given what we've seen so far, it's the 16 points per game they are conceding that will determine how seriously they're taken towards the end of the season.

The 2021 Panthers became the 15th team in the last 16 seasons to win the premiership with a top-three defence in the competition. It's the most consistent measure of premiership winners and the Sharks' 16 points conceded per game is good for 4th through seven rounds. 

The Sharks have started their season well to exceed expectations on both sides of the ball. While a step behind the top two teams in the NRL, they're out towards the front of the chasing pack on the form guide. 

Now, they have the second-easiest remaining draw to refine their process and prepare for a likely return to finals football.

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Jason Oliver

As far as Jason is concerned, there is no better time of year than March through June. An overlap of the NBA and NRL seasons offer up daily opportunities to find an edge and fund the ever-increasing number of sports streaming services he subscribes to. If there's an underdog worth taking in either code, he'll be on it.

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