The young Sharks playing group lost their coach, their captain and the last remaining members of the club’s 2016 premiership team but under Josh Hannay’s mentoring they never lost the resolve to continue Cronulla’s record of regular finals appearances.
Hannay is set to become the first interim coach since Cameron Ciraldo took charge of Penrith four weeks before the 2018 finals series to lead a team to the playoffs if the Sharks can beat Melbourne on Friday night or other results go their way.
It’s a remarkable feat given that most had written off Cronulla after the shock sacking of John Morris five rounds into the season followed by five consecutive losses under Hannay, who was thrust into an interim coaching role for the second successive season.
“You dare to dream, don’t you,” Hannay said. “We are one game away from doing the unthinkable in the eyes of many people, but the club has just got this attitude about playing finals.
“They have got a proud history of being a finals team year in and year out and the players are really determined not to be the group that stops that run.
“We don’t sit around having meetings about it but throughout the year at different times I have overheard guys having discussions among themselves about how ‘we have got to play finals. That’s who we are. We are a finals team’."
Match Highlights: Sharks v Broncos
The Sharks have missed the finals just once since 2011 and that was the 2014 season when the club was dealing with the fallout of the ASADA investigation into the use of peptides three years earlier.
Yet this season they have had to overcome the loss of captain Wade Graham in round 14 due to a head knock and some of their other most experienced players, including 2016 premiership-winning teammates Andrew Fifita and Chad Townsend, as well as Shaun Johnson and Josh Dugan.
Townsend was released mid-season to join the Warriors after being told he was not part of incoming coach Craig Fitzgibbon’s plans for next season, while Fifita played just six matches before fracturing his larynx two weeks ago.
Despite missing so many big-name stars, the Sharks have used just 27 players so far this season - the least of any NRL team, followed by Penrith (28), South Sydney, Manly and Parramatta (all 29). In contrast, Brisbane have used 36 players.
However, Cronulla also boast one of the least experienced teams, with Aaron Woods, Aiden Tolman and Matt Moylan the only members of the team which beat the Broncos last weekend to have played more than 75 NRL matches.
“I know the assumption when it all went down with Bomber [Morris] was that the club would just collapse and make up the numbers this year,” Hannay said.
“People thought we would most likely finish bottom four and fight it out for the spoon.
“I remember some of the storylines and the opinions of certain people around that time was that the year was a write off.
“That was hard to ignore to be honest because at that point you think maybe they are right.”
This is not a dictatorship
Hannay had taken charge of North Queensland last year after the mid-season departure of Paul Green but he said the two situations were different as the Cowboys had a group of disgruntled players, whereas most of the Sharks were happy under Morris.
Morris had overseen the development of many of the players in Cronulla’s pathway systems before introducing them to first grade when he took over as coach in 2019, with 12 of last weekend’s team having come through the club’s junior ranks or played for feeder team, Newtown.
The loss of their coach had an impact on the squad but Hannay had assisted Morris during the pre-season and developed relationships with the players.
“One thing I would like to think is a strength of mine as a coach is that I am generally very open with the players in terms of letting them know what I am thinking. It is not a dictatorship,” Hannay said.
“Ultimately, I know the buck stops with the coach but along the way I always thought it was important to talk the players through it as well.
“When you are throwing out new ideas about game styles and scheduling and that sort of stuff, your pitch is really important and you need to make sure that when you are presenting to the players you sell it well.”
However, often an assistant coach will have a better relationship with the players than the head coach, and Hannay has had to make some tough decisions since taking charge.
He agreed to release Townsend after deciding that Johnson and Moylan were the club’s best halves pairing, chose not to take Dugan to Queensland when the squad relocated after he breached the NRL’s biosecurity protocols and dropped Will Chambers over his on-field antics as well as poor form.
Episode 27 - Latrell fallout, Morris retires and Rapana on finals push
“When you are an assistant you have all these ideas and opinions that you give to the head coach but you don’t actually have to pull the trigger on those decisions and you don’t have to have those conversations with people, and deal with the fall out,” Hannay said.
“There has definitely been some tough calls made this year and the one thing the players know with me is that it is never personal.
“I am very upfront and honest with the guys, and they know that and respect that, so I think it makes those hard conversations easier to have because there is a level of trust there.”
Resolve runs deep
After a difficult start under Hannay, Cronulla won four consecutive games with arguably their strongest line-up available and confidence within the squad grew before again being hit by injuries to senior players.
The Sharks have won four of their last eight matches, including the past two against Wests Tigers and the Broncos, and are in eighth place on for-and-against ahead of Canberra and Gold Coast.
“I’m super proud of what we have been able to achieve,” said Hannay, who will remain with the Sharks as an assistant to Fitzgibbon next season.
“I know we were written off in all quarters at that time and you would have thought that a lot of things would have to go our way for us to be where we are today but the reality is that we haven’t had a lot go our way and we are still where we are.
“That is a wonderful testament to the resolve of the group and one of the real pleasing things for me is that all the young guys in our group seem to be on a trajectory of getting better.
“We knew they were good and we knew they had talent but they are really thriving and going through the roof and nearly all of them have played under 70 games.”
With Will Kennedy establishing himself as a top-class fullback, centre Jesse Ramien living up to his promise, winger Ronaldo Mulitalo only being denied his Origin debut because of an eligibility wrangle and Connor Tracey being arguably the NRL’s most improved player, the future is bright.
In addition, the Sharks have recruited Melbourne stars Dale Finucane and Nicho Hynes, as well as former St George Illawarra captain Cameron McInnes to play under Fitzgibbon.
“You bring in some of the quality and experience coming to the club next year and you get Wade Graham back in the mix, and a new coach who is going to be great for the club, it is hard not to get excited when you think about it all coming together,” Hannay admitted.
Katoa floating through the defence to find Tracey
However, the Sharks aren’t looking any further than this week as they aim to upset the Storm and book another finals berth.
“It might have looked a million miles away at different times but the attitude has always been that we are a finals club, we play finals footy and we have got a responsibility to get the club there again,” Hannay said.
“Here we are with a week to go and a big game to play but ideally we are not relying on any favours, we go out and do the job ourselves. It is going to be a tough game but it would be a just reward for these guys to get there.
“They have never doubted themselves and their ability to get to the finals this year, and that has certainly held us in good stead.”
The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARL Commission, NRL clubs or state associations.