NRL Club Series: Craig Fitzgibbon, Cronulla Sharks, Oregon Kaufusi

The Sharks’ backdoor exit from last season’s finals was an inglorious end to a year that promised so much. The bar of expectation is much higher this time.

Craig Fitzgibbon set the bar high in his first season as NRL head coach for the Sharks – how will they do in 2023?

David Ricio walks through everything you need to know about Cronulla in our exclusive club-by-club pre-season 2023 deep dive series.

2022 RICH 100 REPS: 6

Andrew Fifita (19, $850K), Wade Graham (27, $800K), Dale Finucane (66, $625K), Nicho Hynes (72, $600K), Blayke Brailey (95, $500K), Cameron McInnes (100, $500,000)

FREE AGENCY PACKAGING

The Sharks didn’t have to make mass roster changes with the majority of their impressive 2022 roster suspended for 2023.

The retirements of Premiership hero Andrew Fifita and veteran striker Aiden Tolman give the Sharks a more youthful look in 2023.

The arrival of Oregon Kaufusi, 23, won’t make big headlines but the young prop’s reputation is rising after a stellar season that spanned 28 games in a Parramatta pack that reached the grand final before featuring in a World Cup final Samoa played .

Tying skipper Wade Graham to a bargain-based business is a smart move, especially given his experience. It is needed after the exits of Fifita and Tolman.

Rating: B

COACH STATUS

Long considered an NRL coach-on-hold, Craig Fitzgibbon made the leap into the oven in 2022 and emerged with a further improved reputation.

A contender for Dally M Coach of the Year, Fitzgibbon discovered qualities few knew in halfback Nicho Hynes while at the other end being able to bring out the best in aging veterans Andrew Fifita and Aiden Tolman.

Fitzgibbon’s second season as head coach will be different as he has raised the bar much higher at the Shire.

However, his recent off-season trip to Europe with the most senior executives in the Sharks hierarchy suggests Cronulla is building a long-term strategy that includes the respected mentor running the club for a few years.

Safety rating: A+

LIKELY DEBUTANT(S)

Kayal Iro

Granted, he made his debut with an NRL game in 2022, but Kayal Iro is a name Sharks fans will be hearing a lot more about this season.

The son of former Kiwi international Kevin Iro is a sturdy center who’s strong with a wicked defence. He is a reigning Brad Fittler Medalist, having won the 2022 NSW Cup Player of the Year.

The 20-year-old made his debut on the wing for the Sharks in Round 24 but he is much more at home at centre-back or full-back, where he has represented the Cook Islands six times.

WHO MAKES THE NEXT STEP?

Kade Dykes

The young full-back/fifth/centre garnered a taste of NRL in 2022 with two appearances including his first NRL attempt. He will benefit greatly from another NRL preseason and provided he stays healthy he will be pressuring full-back Will Kennedy every week.

Jesse Colquhoun

The Wollongong forward is making waves with his elite-level work performance and willingness to get dirty.

Good judges in the Shire have described him as a similar player to Rooster mainstay Nat Butcher. Colquhoun made three appearances off the bench in 2022 but without Andrew Fifita and Aiden Tolman on his way, expect the 20-year-old to feature heavily in 2023.

THREE BURNING PROBLEMS

1) Fullback fight

Will Kennedy will start the season rightly at fullback, with the dynamic ball runner taking the Sharks’ No. 1 jersey for the past two seasons.

However, Kennedy is aware of the pressure coming from both rookie Kade Dykes and ex-rugby star Lachie Miller.

Dykes, a big body with strong carry, is able to play centers and five-eighths in a pinch. However, he undeniably prefers full-back, as evidenced by his first taste of the NRL when Kennedy was injured in 2022.

Watch as Dykes earns game time in the preseason trials, as does Miller, who has also shown his wares at back in the NRL.

Miller is capable of playing a number of positions in defence, which could make him an explosive No. 14 in 2023.

2) Captain’s Log

Hiring Captain Wade Graham to announce his final season with the Sharks should become the blueprint for every NRL player.

He pushed his ego aside to explain that in his senior year at Cronulla he will do whatever is best for the team, including forgoing selection if the manager so desires. But the sharks have to be careful: experience still counts. And while players like Dale Finucane and Cam McInnes provide tremendous leadership, without Graham on the field, the Sharks are quickly losing big-game experience.

3) Painful hangover

The Sharks dropped a golden ticket in late 2022 that rarely gets in the way of a football team.

With a chance to qualify for a major Finals qualifier, the Sharks lost to the Cowboys in a thriller at their home track at Shark Park.

The silence was deafening from the shaken home fans as the full-time siren sounded.

The loss left the Sharks badly crushed as they were defeated by the Rabbitohs in an elimination final the next week.

How are the sharks reacting? Has that blunted their belief that they are more than just a regular-season team capable of taking on the big boys in the Finals? We will see.

CRYSTAL BALL

Under the new leadership of Craig Fitzgibbon, they have shown they are team building for a purple period.

Coming in second after the regular season, some would argue they did it too soon. Regardless, that’s the bar the sharks have set for themselves. You should aim for no less than a top four finish.

The Sharks must use their pain at the backdoor exit from last season’s Finals to become a stronger team.

On paper, the 2023 Sharks are a youthful forward pack – which should give them more leg speed and drive through the middle.

Key to success will be getting more consistency out of their younger forwards in Toby Rudolf and Royce Hunt, a bigger impact from Matt Moylan later in the year and Will Kennedy improving his resilience in defence.

FINISH FOR THE LAST FIVE YEARS

2022: 2nd (eliminated in second week of finals)

2021: 9th

2020: 8th

2019: 7th

2018: 4th

2023 ODDS

Premier League: $11

Minor Premiership: $13

To reach the grand final: $5.50

Top four: $2.40

Top Eight: $1.35

Most Losses: $81

Originally released as NRL 2023 Team Preview: Cronulla Sharks Free Agency Wrap, Crystal Ball

https://www.codesports.com.au/nrl/nrl-2023-team-previews-cronulla-sharks-free-agency-wrap-crystal-ball/news-story/bfaba334f864529e3d8c64123d1744a7?nk=ea314cdb80ab7c119a98c524543a9d52-1672190885 NRL Club Series: Craig Fitzgibbon, Cronulla Sharks, Oregon Kaufusi

Ryan Sederquist

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