Cronulla Sharks: In trouble but don't count them out
The Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks are in trouble.
A 1-4 start is enough to put them in the wooden spoon conversation while speculation around John Morris' job as head coach has already begun. Big-money players aren't producing, low-cost youngsters are on the sidelines for various reasons, and aging players are looking worse for the off-season and season suspension.
There isn't a lot going right for the Sharks at the moment.
The Season So Far
The Sharks didn't travel too badly before the NRL season was called to a halt due to the coronavirus. Albeit 0-2 against the Rabbitohs (22-18) and Storm (12-10), the Sharks hung in there throughout both matches. They looked like the team many thought they should be: Middling, capable of getting into the grind, but ultimately lacking the pieces to compete with the genuine contenders.
Now, they're in the middle of the wooden spoon race, flanked by the Titans, Dragons, Bulldogs and Warriors.
Cronulla's Round 3 loss to the Wests Tigers is where things started to come undone. Up 16-10 going into half-time, the Sharks run out of puff. No play sums up the last 30 minutes of their 28-16 loss better than this one:
The Sharks' 26-16 Round 4 win, while easy on the eye at times, came against a Cowboys outfit playing without Jason Taumalolo and Michael Morgan. North Queensland only completed at 61% too.
Then came Round 5...
Losing to an awful Dragons team that came into Round 5 as the undisputed worst team in the competition at the time is bad enough. To get played off the park and look disinterested until the final 10 minutes of the 30-16 loss should be enough to inspire wholesale changes. Although, that doesn't neccesarily mean changes to personnel.
What's Going Wrong In The Shire?
Despite the tired and lazy blame game directed at halves in the NRL, in particular, Shaun Johnson, the Kiwi international shouldn't get off easy.
He's always going to struggle behind what has been a lacklustre and error-ridden pack. There is only so much he can do when the Sharks run for 1,657 metres per game (10th) while making the second-most errors at 12.4 per game. So far, he's running for a career-high 87.6 metres per game himself and sitting equal-first in total try assists with six. Not bad for a bloke that is the scapegoat every week.
In fact, he'll be named in the first Stats Insider NRL Team of the Week for his Round 5 performance.
Regardless of how justied the scrutiny on him is, it needs to be Johnson pulling the strings, because if it's not, the Sharks are spineless.
Will Kennedy has been up and down at best, Blayke Brailey has never been known as an attacking threat, Matt Moylan lasted one game before succumbing to injury, and Chad Townsend has recorded no tries, no try assists, no linebreaks and just one linebreak assist since Round 23 last year.
Cronulla's problems in attack can't be fixed by Johnson simply "running the ball more" as some suggest. It's where the solution needs to start, though.
Johnson doesn't need to step every opposition player on his way to the try line to be effective and tick the box lazy analysts so desperately demand. He looked dangerous enough here putting Euan Aitken on his backside before crabbing across the field. The play didn't eventuate to anything on this occasion, but the right hole-runner hits the gap after Ben Hunt gets out in front of the line to stop Johnson's sideways progress and at least goes close to the line.
Kodi Nikorima replaced Johnson at the Warriors and just played his best game for the club in Round 5. It came after Warriors legend, Stacey Jones, told Nikorima to "be greedy this week and just run the ball."
Perhaps the same needs to be said to Johnson this week before facing a Bulldogs left edge that, per Stats Insider's Try Location data, has conceded an NRL-high 12 tries down that side of the field.
The Sharks also have a lot of work to do defensively.
Only two teams have conceded more points than the Sharks in 2020: The Broncos who had 59 points hung on them in Round 4, and the Titans - a side that ended up just one day short of a winless calendar year.
The Sharks are a shambles around the ruck. Aaron Woods and Andrew Fifita, in particular, have been caught out too many times.
Immobile forwards are the big losers of the new six-again rule. They're being asked to do more work than ever, and with an already lazy Woods starting in the front row, the Sharks are being made to pay.
The first comes out of left-field and is a little bit more than "have Johnson run the ball."
Instead, it's have Johnson spend more time on the left side of the field.
He's commanded the best right-side attack in each of the last two seasons, but the Sharks would benefit from Johnson spreading his time across the field. His combination with Briton Nikora is mouthwatering. However, it's been largely ineffective this year with the ease in which the opposing defence can slide knowing the left edge isn't nearly as potent.
We've seen glimpses of how he can work with Wade Graham out there already.
The pair linked up for a perfectly executed try to open Cronulla's season.
They ran exactly the same play to score in Round 5 against the Dragons, too.
Opposition coaches will have seen these two shifts and prepped their players. This now opens up the opportunity for Johnson to hit either his fullback or centre, or provide Graham with the early ball he can use to dominate as one of the best triple-threat players (run, pass and kick) in the NRL.
The Sharks half will need to drift across the field more often to make the most of it, though.
When it comes to the defence through the middle, Morris isn't going to drop Fifita and Woods. He needs their production with the ball in hand. Morris' best bet is to split them. He has them working in tandem when both are available at the moment.
Toby Rudolph, meanwhile, has looked excellent in his five games this season. He has the motor and the lateral movement to keep up with the increasing speed of the game. So too does Braden Hamlin-Uele who can also produce the Fifita-like breaking runs in attack.
You could do worse than a Fifita, Woods, Rudolph and Hamlin-Uele prop rotation. Although, Morris may see better results by adjusting how the four are paired up.
To continue the theme of starting the season and seeing similarities in Round 5, Woods and Fifita contributed to a significant hole in the middle of the field for the Sharks to concede their first try in 2020.
The pair were again involved in a soft try through the middle on Sunday.
We've seen enough of the duo on the field together to warrant a change here. With Fifita's body looking anything but healthy and the Tongan international averaging just 115.23 running metres per game, a switch to the bench may benefit both Fifita and the Sharks middle defence overall.
Despite only one win through five rounds to sit 13th on the ladder, the Stats Insider Futures model hasn't quite stuck a fork in Cronulla's finals chances. They're currently given a 24.8% chance to crack the Top 8 by the end of Round 20.
That may have to do with their remaining schedule. Our Schedule Difficulty model highlights the Sharks as having the easiest remaining draw of all 16 teams.
So, there is hope.
If Morris can draw a little more out of Johnson in attack and close up the middle defence through an adjusted prop rotation, we may see Cronulla's 24.8% to play finals footy creep up in the coming weeks.
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