Cronulla were a true force to be reckoned with in 2022 finishing 2nd on the ladder. Then the wheels fell off spectacularly, with consecutive defeats bouncing the men from the Shire out of finals footy.
The question for 2023 is; can they bounce back from their finals hangover, keep players fit for the business end of the season and emulate their only premiership win from 2016?
The Sharks exceeded all expectations last season in finishing second on the ladder.
They are not favoured by many to go one better in 2023 and are generally tipped as 4th favourites to reach the grand final.
However, with a less favourable draw last season, many are tipping this season to be more of a struggle.
Dally M winner Nicho Hynes will have all the pressure on his shoulders once again but the Sharks star will be used to that sort of pressure.
If Hynes can live with the expectation and create the attacking opportunities to put his teammates in good positions, the Sharks will put themselves right in the frame.
Can this exciting collection of players defy the odds again?
The loss of a legend and the promising prospect with big shoes to fill
The sheer presence of Andrew Fifita will be a massive hole to fill for the Sharks.
His barnstorming performances over the years could change a game in an instant with a swashbuckling run, a crunching tackle or he would just barge over you for a try.
However, sadly, his 33 year old warrior’s body was broken with 7 surgeries required to get him back on the park and the popular forward has retired from the greatest game.
But who do the Sharks have at their disposal to step up to the plate in 2023?
In signing forward Oregon Kaufusi from Parramatta, have Cronulla found the man to step up to help cover the big loss of Andrew Fifita?
Kaufusi, a Samoan international, was recruited from the Eels and looks a promising prospect.
The strong running forward will certainly go a long way towards getting the Sharks on the front foot.
He will be expected to make the hard yards and is an excellent signing that Sharks fans will be looking forward to watching.
He doesn’t lack big game experience either, playing his final game for Parramatta in the grand final defeat to Penrith.
Big things are expected from the ‘new kid on the block’ and if he can maintain the form he displayed at Parramatta, he could be one of forwards that the Sharks rely on in 2023.
Kaufusi joins a forward pack with plenty of experience alongside players such as Cam McInnes and Dale Finucane.
The retention of a major prospect
A major boost for the Sharks in 2023 was the re-signing of representative centre/backrower Siosifa Talakai, a New South Wales representative and Tongan international.
In what was arguably the best season of Talakai’s career, 2022 saw him rewarded with two Origin appearances for New South Wales.
He also caught the eye of Tongan coach Kristian Woolf and was rewarded with selection to the squad and a trip to England for the World Cup.
This human juggernaut of a player terrorised more than a few NRL defences during the 2022 season.
One of his most eye-catching displays was against Manly, where he was just too hot to handle and destroyed the Sea Eagles defence at will.
Talakai’s blockbusting display reap the rewards with 2 tries, 3 assists and 252 metres made.
Sharks’ fans will be hoping this red-hot form continues as he is an integral part of a back line that punches its way through defences and gains some of most metres in the competition.
The glittering form of a star half back
Nicho Hynes was the star man for the Sharks in 2022, joining as a marquee signing from the Storm.
He was worth his weight in gold and rewarded the Sharks with some stellar performances.
This included taking out the 2022 Dally M with a record number of votes (38) for an individual player, smashing a 43 year old record in the process.
As a neutral fan, he was a joy to watch and pivotal in a number of Cronulla’s victories in 2022.
Another bonus is that he has benefited from a full off season, having not been involved in the World Cup. Doing so only bodes well for his impact in 2023.
However, one concern could be the lack of support on offence.
At times, Hynes looked like the only attacking threat to create something, particularly during finals football.
Hynes will hope that some of his teammates can step up regularly and offer the attacking support the Sharks need to provide some different structures and shape.
If he can find that attacking support and perform to the same levels as his Dally M winning season, why not dare to dream Sharks fans?
You may need to book your grand final tickets despite what the tipsters are predicting.
A young gun ready to step up?
Although his chance may not come immediately in 2023, Kayal Iro is a name that Sharks fans have been excited about since he joined the club.
The Leeds born Iro is a player who looks very composed in defence and a constant threat whenever he had the ball in attack as we saw when he represented the Cook Islands at the World Cup.
Iro can play full back, centre or winger and has ‘loads of potential.
Tony kept a close eye on him at the World Cup as head coach of the Cook Islands.
Kayal has the potential in the future to be another glittering jewel in a backline that is already packed with an array of exciting talent.
Opportunity will come knocking sooner rather than later and when it does, you can bet Iro will be there to take it.
Player to Watch
Ronaldo Mulitalo is already a fan favourite at Shark Park and he is an exciting talent to watch.
His explosive pace and acrobatic finishes in the corner have been a hallmark along with his try scoring exploits.
With 17 tries in 24 appearances last season, he was top try scorer for the Sharks and a real match winner.
The anticipation before he gets the ball is electric and whenever he has it anywhere near the opponents try line, Ronaldo looks odds on to score.
Mulitalo had an amazing World Cup playing footy for New Zealand including an epic world cup semi-final clash with Australia, where the Kiwis almost pulled off a historic victory.
His performances in the World cup semi should give Ronaldo the confidence to kick on and there is nothing to stop him topping the NRL try scoring table.
2023 Cronulla Sharks Gains and Losses
Daniel Atkinson (Sunshine Coast Falcons), Max Bradbury (2024), Oregon Kaufusi (Parramatta Eels), Sam Stonestreet (2023) & Siteni Taukamo (2024)
Andrew Fifita (retired), Luke Metcalf (New Zealand Warriors), Lachlan Miller (Newcastle Knights), Franklin Pele (Canterbury Bulldogs) & Aiden Tolman (retired).
Our 2023 Cronulla Sharks Predicted line- up (At full strength):
- William Kennedy
- Sione Katoa
- Jesse Ramien
- Siosifa Talakai
- Ronaldo Mulitalo
- Matt Moylan
- Nicho Hynes
- Toby Rudolf
- Blayke Bailey
- Royce Hunt
- Briton Nikora
- Teig Wilton
- Dale Finucane
- Cameron McInnes
- Wade Graham
- Braden Hamlin-Uele
- Oregon Kaufusi