Cronulla's investment in a talented crop of youth has begun to bear fruit as the Sharks now look to go from a mid-table team to a top-four contender.
Under the nurturing of coach John Morris during the past two seasons, players including Blayke Brailey, Ronaldo Mulitalo, Briton Nikora, Toby Rudolf, Braden Hamlin-Uele, Siosifa Talakai, Royce Hunt and Sione Katoa have become established NRL performers.
With Morris having had sufficient time to tweak the team's style to his preferences and develop a young roster, the next challenge is becoming a genuine title contender instead of a finals also-ran.
The Sharks finished eighth last year but were bounced out in the first week of the playoffs for the second straight season. Notably, they didn't defeat a fellow top-eight side throughout their campaign (though they came close on several occasions).
Their start to 2021 could have big implications for Morris, who despite displaying his aptitude for coaching amid adversity has not yet been granted a contract extension. Speculation about potential replacements has been rife for most of the summer.
And the absence of star playmaker Shaun Johnson for at least the opening month due to his Achilles injury makes things tougher. But it provides an opportunity for Matt Moylan, himself afflicted by constant injuries, to remind everyone of his class at five-eighth.
Cronulla are no strangers to dealing with external pressure, and they'll again need to brush it aside to begin the year well.
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The 2021 outlook
Former Bulldogs prop Aiden Tolman is the club's only big-name acquisition for the upcoming season. The renowned toiler is set to add experience and leadership to the forward pack.
Luke Metcalf, a 21-year-old Sharks junior who went to the Sea Eagles in search of opportunity, is back in black, white and blue.
Equally comfortable at halfback or fullback, Metcalf is currently on a development contract but his standout performance wearing the No.1 jumper in an emerging players trial against the Dragons suggested he could make his NRL debut at some stage this year.
Josh Hannay has joined the coaching staff as an assistant to Morris, while Darren Mooney – part of the 2016 premiership – has returned to the club from Newcastle as general manager of football.
On paper, Cronulla face a tough initial period with a local derby against St George Illawarra followed by clashes with 2020 finalists Canberra (who eliminated the Sharks last year), Parramatta and Sydney Roosters in round five. The Sharks haven't drawn any five-day turnarounds, which should aid in their recovery.
The burning question
There are plenty of queries surrounding Cronulla. Will Morris be re-signed? Can Moylan stay fit? Will Johnson be able to recapture his best form following an Achilles injury?
But from a team perspective, the real question is whether the Sharks can beat the elite sides after having only defeated the teams that finished below them last season.
More luck in the health department should help Cronulla build the cohesion and consistency required to move up a bracket.
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The six-again rule threw many teams for a loop last year, but the Sharks capitalised on the faster play-the-ball speed. They scored 20 tries on the back of ruck infringements – the most in the league.
With the six-again rule being expanded in 2021 to include 10-metre offside infringements, Cronulla could be more dangerous.
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Matt Moylan ($310k) is as cheap as he's been for years so will earn some good price rises if he can stay fit, and Chad Townsend ($446k) could get plenty of kick metres and possibly goals in the absence of the injured Shaun Johnson at the start of the year.
Andrew Fifita ($541k) is a former Fantasy superstar who has trimmed down in the off-season, although injury concerns persist.
A host of veteran stars are unsigned for 2022 including Johnson, Moylan, Aaron Woods, Josh Dugan and Tolman. Chad Townsend has an option in his favour for the next two years.
Cronulla's salary cap issues have been well-documented, so it's safe to assume they won't rush into offering big-money extensions.
And they've also got a few rising players coming off-contract such as Rudolf, Talakai, William Kennedy, Braydon Trindall and Connor Tracey. Already the recruitment for next season has begun, with injured Dragons captain Cameron McInnes inking a four-year deal.
Breakout player to watch
Fans got a glimpse of Wilton's ability as he made five appearances last year. The second-rower, who is contracted until 2023, is seen as a player of immense potential and could get more game-time.
At this stage, it'd be hard for Wilton to replace captain Wade Graham or Briton Nikora on the edges, with Talakai another option, but he appears ready to grab any chances that may fall his way.
"We managed to play finals footy for my first two years, which I think has been a good achievement. Both years we've obviously bowed out earlier than I'd like. We've been there at the right time of year, we've just got to show some improvement so we can go deeper," – John Morris on his expectations for the 2021 season.
The good, the bad, the likely
The good: A fit and firing Moylan proves the missing piece to the puzzle and Johnson successfully returns as the youngsters keep improving and push the Sharks into the top four.
The bad: A slow start leads to mounting media pressure on the coach and the team struggles to perform amid the noise.
The likely: Another commendable season – not quite among the premiership heavyweights, but very competitive most weeks to finish anywhere from fifth to eighth.
Sharks in 2021
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