Shark In The Water: Why Cronulla Mightn't Be Done For Just Yet

It's almost the one-year anniversary of the last Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks crisis piece here at Stats Insider.

Round 6 of the 2020 NRL season at the time, and with the Sharks off to a 1-4 start, they were in trouble. Big trouble. At just 24.8% to make the Top 8 according to the Stats Insider futures model, most, including our expert number crunchers, had put a line through them as finals contenders. 

Still, there were signs of hope.

Shaun Johnson looked dangerous and ended the season with an NRL-high 23 try assists despite only managing 16 games. Andrew Fifita and Aaron Woods had proven themselves incapable of playing alongside each other too often early into the year, and were soon split up, significantly improving their middle defence.

Despite not beating a single team above them on the NRL ladder, the Sharks went on to win 10 of their last 20 games to finish 8th and feature in the 2020 Finals series. Albeit only briefly. 

And here we are again in 2021.

While the Sharks have won 2 on the bounce, many already have a line through them as Top 8 contenders heading into Round 14. They have just 4 wins in 12 games to be 10th on the ladder, and just a 14.5% chance of advancing beyond Round 25. 

However, the improving health and an excellent Round 12 performance gives life to the idea that another unexpected run into finals footy isn't out of the question. 

RELATED: Check out all of Stats Insider's full season NRL projections 

The Season So Far

Round 1: Sharks 32 def. Dragons 18
Round 7: Bulldogs 18 def. Sharks 12
Round 2: Raiders 12 def. Sharks 10
Round 8: Storm 40 def. Sharks 14
Round 3: Eels 28 def. Sharks 4
Round 9: Panthers 48 def. Sharks 0
Round 4: Sharks 48 def. Cowboys 10
Round 10: Rabbitohs 32 def. Sharks 22
Round 5: Roosters 26 def. Sharks 18
Round 11: Sharks 13 def. Dragons 12
Round 6: Knights 26 def. Sharks 22
Round 12: Sharks 38 def. Titans 10

The Sharks won just 2 of their first 10 games of the season to be 14th on the ladder alongside the Brisbane Broncos, and sat just 2 competition points ahead of the bottom-placed Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs. Their 12th-ranked attack scored 18.2 points per game, while their their 11th-ranked defence allowed 25.8 points per game back through them.

From a numbers perspective, the Sharks weren't a bottom-3 team. However, injuries to key players, poor losses and a tough draw to start had many fans appointing them as a wooden spoon smokey.

Shaun Johnson, Sione Katoa, Ronaldo Mulitalo, Siosifa Talakai, Matt Moylan, Braden Hamlin-Uele and Jesse Ramien all missed time due to injury or suspension throughout the first 10 rounds. Still, it didn't excuse the Sharks from losing to the Bulldogs in Round 7. That is the result that started the conversation around a potential wooden spoon.

Losses to the early-season Canberra Raiders, Parramatta Eels and Sydney Roosters are acceptable. No club should be forced to face the Melbourne Storm, Penrith Panthers and South Sydney Rabbitohs back-to-back-to-back, and the Sharks succumbed to the results most would have in that period - three losses.

Johnson won it for the Sharks three times in Round 7 before teammates fumbled the opportunity at the line. The Newcastle Knights were there for the taking in Round 7, too. But with players returning to the field and into form along with two wins on the trot, there is plenty to be encouraged by moving forward.

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The Positive Signs In Attack

The highlights package of Cronulla's 13-12 win over the St. George-Illawarra Dragons can be cut down into 30 seconds. It was ugly, but one the Sharks simply had to win. It's the following week, their 38-10 win over the Gold Coast Titans, that Josh Hannay and the Sharks need to build around if they're to raise their current 14.5% to make the Top 8.

Running for 1,882 metres, 12 Sharks players picked up 100+ running metres throughout the game. Importantly, all five starting middles cracked the 100-metre mark while Siosifa Talakai and Jack Williams added another 100+ metres each off the bench. From there, the spine dominated in a way that will test even the best defences in the NRL if they can produce that level consistently across the remaining 12 rounds.

Blayke Brailey offered quality service out of dummy half, allowing Johnson and Moylan to play on the front foot. The much-maligned halves pairing looked the goods playing both sides of the field and linking up on wide-ranging shifts.

While these two actions - both in the same set - didn't produce points, they're the sort that will cause the defence problems when they begin to stick.

Aaron Woods acts as a pivot in the first shift as he allows Johnson to play from the middle of the field. Woods is quietly having a good season in this department to have 59 general play passes to his name - 9th-most of all props. Once Johnson is on the outside of his man in the middle, the Titans defence begins to break down as the ball moves through Moylan and Will Kennedy. A desperate cover tackle is all that stops Mulitalo from scoring on this occasion. 

The second is similar, only this time, Aiden Tolman and Woods swap places before the ball gets to Johnson. Moylan is again floating out the back with Kennedy an option wider. It's clunky; Will Chambers fluffs his line and Kennedy doesn't start his movement to Chambers' outside shoulder early enough as a result. Still, it's an action that carries a lot of potential down the left edge.

Those two shifts played a part in points later in the match as the Titans identified the trio in similar positions, rushed out, and failed to shut down the movement.

The Sharks scored 88 tries (46%) down Johnson's right side across the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Just 14 of their 39 tries (36%) in 2021 have come down that side through 12 games. A lot of that comes down to Johnson only featuring in four games so far, but his move into a traditional #7 role alongside Moylan in the halves could continue that trend.

Despite some experts in the game still demanding that Johnson create all of his opportunities with his feet, he is an improving game manager and manipulator of defensive lines. He makes the right read more often than not, and by taking possession more often in the middle of the field, the Kiwi international has more opportunities to pinpoint and expose deficiencies in a defensive line. 

He always played his best football for the Warriors from the middle. While a lot of that had to do with his speed and footwork at the time, the principles of targeting a mismatch and exposing it remain the same. He found Tanah Boyd wanting several times in Round 12 while touching the ball a season-high 60 times.

Jesse Ramien does the hard work and breaks the line, but something so simple as dropping his big centre onto a much smaller half is how Johnson created this opportunity.

Following the line break, Johnson takes over at dummy half. He knows where the opportunity to score is going to be. As the halfback and quite clearly tasked with taking on more of a game-manager role in the side, he makes sure the ball gets to where it needs to be for the Sharks to make the most of Ramien's line break.

It wasn't long before Johnson picked out Boyd in the line again. Once more taking possession in the middle of the field, Johnson tempo's his run to get across Tino Fa'asuamaleaui while also engaging David Fifita as he straightens. That leaves Jack Williams (184cm and 98kg) one-on-one with Boyd (176cm and 86kg) which is going to result in points more often than not.

Johnson's ability to play the role of a traditional #7 is grossly underrated at this point. It's an area of the game that he has been working on for years, and it's what should keep him at the club alongside Nicho Hynes in 2022.

The Sharks have the pieces to improve and make a run at finals football this year. While they lack top-tier ballplayers in the middle of the field, Tolman, Woods and Toby Rudolf can do the job well enough. The regular injuries to Johnson and Moyan aren't ideal either, but both are healthy right now.

With Kennedy growing as a fullback and Brailey displaying some nice variation in his movements out of dummy half, we can anticipate an improvement to Cronulla's current 19.4 points per game by the end of Round 25.

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Crystal Ball

Health is the biggest factor in Cronulla's Top 8 hopes.

They already have a deep hole to climb out of and it can't get any deeper with injuries to key players. But the Sharks can't control injuries. It's in defence that they need to make significant improvements. 

Round 12 provided plenty of reasons to be encouraged by the Sharks with the ball in hand. They can score enough points to win of their remaining 12 games which will put them in the hunt for a Top 8 spot. However, continuing to concede 23.3 points per game will make that task difficult. 

What does work in Cronulla's favour is the remaining draw. The Stats Insider Model has awarded them with the second-easiest remaining draw this season. Following their matchup against an Origin-depleted Panthers in Round 14, the Sharks only play three more games against teams currently inside the Top 8: @ Cowboys in Round 15, Sea Eagles in Round 20 and Storm in Round 25.

Looking at the ladder as it stands, there is a good chance a below-average team cracks the eight this year. The Sharks can be that below-average side that earns the right to be thrashed by the Roosters or Sea Eagles in Week 1 of the Finals.

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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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