‘Get the s***s’: The slur fuelling forgotten NRL contender… and the secret weapon ‘flying under the radar’

Through 10 rounds this season, only one team in the NRL can boast of reaching eight wins.

The Cronulla Sharks.

Despite all the early success this season, Craig Fitzgibbon’s side still feel underappreciated. Written off. Not yet taken seriously.

Not that this is anything new. The usual comments about a weak draw have resurfaced along with reminders of their recent finals record.

Round 11

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So, leading up to last week’s blockbuster against the Storm in Melbourne, Cronulla heard much of the same criticism. That they haven’t really proved their worth yet and that they’ll be mightily tested in an upcoming run of games against competition heavyweights the Storm, Roosters and Panthers.

First test vs. Storm – tick.

Even without star half Nicho Hynes, the Sharks’ trademark grit in defence of 2024 was on show for all to see as they ran out 25-18 winners in Round 10.

As they’ve done all year, the Sharks back five starred while an underrated forward pack once again impressed.

Remarkably, it was the first win by any team at AAMI Park in 14 games as the Sharks broke their own six-year drought in Melbourne.

It is worth noting that both teams were missing key players.

Hynes was a late scratching with a calf issue, while the Storm were missing a couple of stars of their own in halfback Jahrome Hughes and fullback Ryan Papenhuyzen.

Fox League’s Michael Ennis, who helped the Sharks win a premiership as a player, said the win over Craig Bellamy’s side confirmed Cronulla as premiership threats, although admitted “he’d be lying” if he didn’t say he wanted to see how they fare in the next two weeks.

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“To go to Melbourne and win at any time is challenging. To go there and win with that fierce rivalry that is there between Cronulla and Melbourne just shows where they’re at at the moment,” Ennis told foxsports.com.au.

“The only thing I suppose that there’s reservations, was that there was no Jahrome Hughes, Ryan Papenhauzen or Xavier Coates for Melbourne. They will play Penrith without Nathan Cleary (next week).

“But for them I get the sense it’s about them chasing a consistent performance week to week and they’re doing that.”

Next up, the Roosters. Arguably the hottest team in the NRL right now.

In Fox League’s game of Magic Round, the Sharks and Roosters will battle it out on the hallowed turf of Suncorp Stadium at 5:30pm Saturday afternoon.

It’s a tantalising matchup.

The Roosters’ high-flying attack, ranked #1 in the competition come up against Cronulla’s league leading defence.

A Sharks win should silence all the doubters and establish them amongst the five premiership hopefuls that appear to be heads and shoulders above the rest of the competition (Panthers, Roosters, Broncos, Storm, Sharks).

Even ahead of the Roosters clash, Fox League’s Corey Parker says Cronulla’s already in that tier.

He thinks they’re the “real deal”.

“I mean, if you’re a Sharks player or coach Fitzy, you would half get the sh*** with that throw away line that everyone’s using,” Parker told foxsports.com.au.

“Sharks are the real deal. Like they can only play the teams that are in front of them. I understand that they have had a great run in the sets of 30 top eight teams.

“But that win on the weekend against Melbourne would certainly silence a lot of people.”

NRL 2022 RD04 Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks v Newcastle Knights – Craig Fitzgibbon. Picture: NRL PhotosSource: The Daily Telegraph

Parker noted that the Sharks have changed their game style for the better. It’s less about flash and more about the grind.

“There are different football side this year than what they were last year. They play a slightly different brand of football,” Parker said.

“Defensively, they’re in the top three of the competition, which is exactly where you need to be to win comps.

“Beating bigger teams will certainly help their credentials.

“But no Nicho Hynes and travelling to AAMI Park last week to win. Why aren’t they the real deal?”

Ennis lauded coach Craig Fitzgibbon and the rest of the Sharks coaching staff for the job they’ve done to transform Cronulla into the best defensive team in the comp statistically (14.2 points conceded per game).

“Craig Fitzgibbon’s done a great job. I mean, defensively, they’re the best side in the competition,” Ennis said.

“And, you know, they’ve handled disruptions well. Early in the season, they missed a few forwards. Now that, you know, had Nicho out in that big game, and other guys have just continued to step up.”

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What has also been crucial to the success of the Sharks this season has been the play of their outside backs.

They are a much bigger and more powerful a group of outside backs than other sides can boast.

Not only are they strike weapons close to the line, or anywhere on the field for that matter, but they play a huge role in getting their team out of sticky situations with tough carries out of their own end.

It not only creates valuable momentum, but as Ennis said, “takes the load off” the forwards.

Wingers Sione Katoa and Ronaldo Mulitalo are also two of the best finishers in the game.

Their centres, Jesse Ramien and Kayal Iro have been so consistent.

Ramien is in the discussion for a maiden Blues jersey, while Iro should be on the top line of betting for the Dally M Rookie of the Year award.

Ennis said the Sharks’ back five are “sliding under the radar” at the moment, comparing their playing style to the back-to-back-to-back champions.

While the Sharks backs aren’t eating the metres like Penrith duo Dylan Edwards and Brian To’o are (1st and 2nd respectively in metres gained according ), Cronulla’s trio of Iro, Ramien, Mulitalo and Katoa are all in the top 50 in the NRL for metres per game, with Iro sitting 9th (165mpg).

Katoa and Mulitalo are top five in the game this season for total tackle busts (49 and 48 respectively).

“I thought they back five at the moment are sliding under the radar. They have been terrific,” Ennis said.

“They’ve gone with that Penrith model, you know, where their outside backs, carry the majority of their yardage in sets.

“Mulitalo, Ramien and Kayal Iro have been incredible. For me, watching Kayal in NSW Cup over the last couple of years, I would have hoped that he got an opportunity a bit earlier, but in saying that Craig and the staff are watching day to day.

“To be fair, Craig knows his players and maybe with the patience he’s shown has paid off because he has thrown him in at the right time and his form suggests that.

“Their outside backs have taken off a bit of that load off those middle forwards with the power carries, and they’ve been so good out of the backfield.”

Sharks centre Kayal Iro has been a revelation for Cronulla this season.Source: Getty Images

Ennis also praised the Sharks’ forward pack and the impact the bench has had.

The Sharks pack was probably the weak link of the side according to most pundits. They’ve certainly put those doubters to bed.

This was despite Cronulla having to deal with the sudden departure of inspiring captain Dale Finucane, who was forced to medically retire.

That has forced Cam McInnes to step up, and he’s handled the extra leadership duties with aplomb.

McInnes is a smokey to be picked in Michael Maguire’s Blues side for Game 1, and it would be a much deserved honour if he does.

Cult hero and prop Tom Hazelton has been a revelation for the Sharks over the past couple of seasons, going from strength to strength each time he runs onto the field. He’s a clear second amongst all props in tries this season (4).

First on that list? Warriors gun Addin Fonua-Blake (5 tries), who will link up with the Sharks from next season.

Fonua-Blake, who is neck-and-neck with Broncos star Payne Haas for the title of the game’s best prop, will be a massive addition to this team.

“The back five take a lot of pressure off their forward pack and they’ve shown that that’s an area – as good as their forward pack is at the moment – they also recognise that that was the reason why they had to do chase Addin Fonua-Blake,” Ennis said.

Addin Fonua-Blake will join the Sharks on a four-year deal from 2025.Source: Getty Images

“Their spine has been great and I think that their bench is just big, powerful and versatile.”

While Cronulla’s draw has been on the softer side to start 2024, you can only beat what’s in front of you.

Not only have they done that, but barring a loss to the Tigers, they’ve treated most of their opponents with contempt.

“Craig’s done a great job with them in that regard, because we’ve seen sides that have been able to get up against the top sides and then, you know, drop their guard against the bottom sides,” Ennis said.

“There’s been a lot of talk about their draw. Well, sometimes it’s hard to have seven or eight guys teaming up and focused every week when you’re sitting first or second and you’re playing against sides that are, you know, 14th and 15th and not thinking in it, but they’ve been ruthless in that regard.”

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