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Sharks captain Wade Graham.

Cronulla snuck into the top eight last season but do they have what it takes to play finals football once more in 2021? 

In 2020 the Sharks were as middle-of-the-road as you could get. From 20 matches they won 10 and lost 10. Across the season their for-and-against was exactly zero: they scored 480 points, and conceded 480 points. Their home record was five wins and five losses; their away record was five wins and five losses.

That was enough to get them into eighth spot then, but have they got what it takes to make the eight this year? 

Will the Sharks play finals footy in 2021?

For – NRL.com journalist Paul Zalunardo

Powerful young forwards, experience in key positions and try-scoring outside backs is a template for success in the NRL.

That's exactly what the Sharks have going for them heading into 2021.

Let's start with the experience – Wade Graham remains a rep standard player, Aaron Woods remains reliable and new signing Aiden Tolman will provide a mixture of strong defence and a no-fuss approach that allows those around him to work some magic.

Then there is the enigma that is Andrew Fifita. If he has his body right come round one, he could be a great asset when used in bursts off the bench.

Analysing the Sharks' 2021 draw

The young forwards?

Toby Rudolf, Braden Hamlin-Uele, Royce Hunt, Jack Williams, Siosifa Talakai and Briton Nikora are part of a group the club will be hoping to build around for the next decade.

Provided they can tighten up their defence a little, that's a pack capable of making the finals in 2021.

There are questions over the backline – or more definitively the ability of some members of to keep their names out of NRL.com's Casualty Ward article.

Matt Moylan and Josh Dugan are the big questions here, but when fit both have the potential to be game changers.

Then there is star half Shaun Johnson. The Kiwis great isn't expected to be back before round eight at the earliest after needing Achilles tendon surgery in the final weeks of the 2020 season.

If Johnson can revisit the superb, and consistent, form he displayed last year, the likes of Sione Katao, Ronaldo Mulitalo and Jesse Ramien should see open spaces.

Fullback William Kennedy also has the potential to become a dangerous man when his side is attacking.

As far as making the top eight goes in 2021, the Sharks are more than capable to winning more games than they lose. If you do that it is usually good enough.

In the last 10 years, only the Warriors, Eels (both 2014) and Dragons (2017) have missed out on the finals with a winning percentage of more than 50 per cent.

Cronulla's attack was plenty good enough last year, but their defence does require improvement. 

Coach John Morris needs improvement in that area, and if he's successful, another trip to the post-season is headed the way of the boys in black, white and blue.

Graham: New faces bring fresh perspective

Against - NRL.com senior journalist Martin Lenehan

Of the eight teams that handled adversity best in 2020 to make it to the finals, Cronulla look to be the most susceptible to missing out in 2021.

A 10-10 record was enough for the Sharks to squeak into the eight in the COVID-disrupted season but they were quickly disposed of by the Raiders in a knockout semi-final.

The signing of veteran prop Aiden Tolman gives coach John Morris more depth in the forwards but the remainder of the squad that takes the field in round one against the Dragons will be pretty much the same as last year.

Shaun Johnson's 2020 season highlights

Key playmaker Shaun Johnson's Achilles injury seems likely to keep him sidelined for the opening eight rounds, leaving Matt Moylan and Chad Townsend to steer the ship through some tough early encounters against the Raiders (round 2), Eels (round 3), Roosters (round 5) and Storm (round 8).

By the time Johnson gets back on the paddock the Sharks could already be behind the eight ball and they lack the firepower to dig themselves out of a hole.

Injuries have not been kind to their headline stars in recent years and Father Time is catching up with Andrew Fifita (31 years old), Josh Dugan (30), Wade Graham (30), Townsend (30) and Johnson (30).

The older a player gets the tougher it is to overcome injuries and the Sharks don't appear to have the depth to cover for the absence of their veterans, although Braden Hamlin-Uele and Toby Rudolf have come along nicely and now have 64 NRL games between them.

In the backs Jesse Ramien and Ronaldo Mulitalo will appear on plenty of highlight reels in 2021 and the Sharks can chalk up a score when it all clicks but their inability to hold the opposition out came back to bite them in a number of games last year.

They were the only top-eight side to concede more than 400 points, giving up 480 at an average of 24 per game.

By way of comparison, premiers Melbourne conceded just 14 points per game in the regular season, minor premiers Penrith gave up 12 and third-placed Parramatta conceded a tick over 14.

If Johnson stays healthy in the second half of the season and finds his dynamic best the Sharks could conceivably make a late charge, but that's a huge 'if' and the finals could well be out of reach by then.

With the new-look Titans and a rejuvenated Manly breathing down their necks, the 2016 champs look extremely vulnerable.

 

The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARL Commission, NRL clubs or state associations.