Young guns vying with Sharks star in key position battle

    David Riccio goes through everything you need to know about Cronulla in our exclusive club-by-club deep dive series ahead of the 2023 season.2022 RICH 100 REPS: 6Andrew Fifita (19, $850k), Wade Graham (27, $800k), Dale Finucane (66, $625k), Nicho Hynes (72, $600k), Blayke Brailey (95, $500k), Cameron McInnes (100, $500k)FREE AGENCY WRAP The Sharks didn’t need to make mass roster changes with the majority of their impressive 2022 squad locked up for 2023. The retirement of premiership hero Andrew Fifita and experienced forward Aiden Tolman gives the Sharks a more youthful look to their pack in 2023. The arrival of Oregon Kaufusi, 23, won’t attract major headlines, but the young prop’s reputation is an increasing one after a stellar season that included 28 games in a Parramatta pack that made the grand final before playing in a World Cup final with Samoa. The retention of skipper Wade Graham on a bargain-based deal is a smart move, particularly given his experience. It’ll be required after the exits of Fifita and Tolman.Rating: BCOACH STATUSLong regarded as an NRL coach-in-waiting, Craig Fitzgibbon made the jump into the furnace in 2022 and emerged with his reputation further enhanced. A contender for Dally M coach of the year, Fitzgibbon unearthed the qualities that few knew in halfback Nicho Hynes, while at the opposite end, he was able to drag the most out of ageing veterans Andrew Fifita and Aiden Tolman. Fitzgibbon’s second season as a head coach will be different in the fact he has set the bar of expectation much higher within the Shire. That said, his recent off-season trip to Europe with the most senior executives within the Sharks hierarchy suggests Cronulla are building a long-term strategy that includes the respected mentor leading the club for a number of years to come.Safety Rating: A+SHARKS 2023 SQUAD AND BEST 17 LIKELY DEBUTANT(S)Kayal IroGranted, he made his debut with one NRL game in 2022, but Kayal Iro is a name Sharks fans will be hearing much more of this season. The son of former Kiwi international Kevin Iro is a robust centre who is powerful with a wicked fend. He’s a reigning Brad Fittler Medallist after winning 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’s much more at home at centre or fullback, where he has represented the Cook Islands on six occasions.WHO TAKES THE NEXT STEP?Kade DykesThe young fullback/five-eighth/centre earned a taste of NRL in 2022 with two appearances, including his first NRL try. He’ll benefit greatly from another NRL pre-season and providing he stays healthy, he’ll be putting pressure on fullback Will Kennedy each week.Jesse ColquhounThe Wollongong forward is making waves with his elite-level workrate and willingness to get down and dirty. Good judges in the Shire have described him as a similar player to Roosters mainstay Nat Butcher. Colquhoun played three games off the bench in 2022, but without Andrew Fifita and Aiden Tolman in his path, expect the 20-year-old to feature heavily in 2023.THREE BURNING ISSUES1) Fullback battleWill Kennedy will justifiably begin the season at fullback, with the dynamic ballrunner taking hold of the Sharks No. 1 jersey over the past two seasons. However, Kennedy is well aware of the pressure that is closing from both rookie Kade Dykes and ex-rugby star Lachie Miller. Dykes, a big body with a strong carry, is capable of also playing centre and, at a pinch, five-eighth. Undeniably, though, his preference is fullback, as proven in his first taste of the NRL when Kennedy was out injured in 2022. Watch for Dykes to land game time in the pre-season trials, as will Miller, who has also shown his wares at the back in the NRL. Miller is capable of playing a number of positions across the backline, which is why he could be used as an explosive No. 14 in 2023.2) Captain’s logCaptain Wade Graham’s attitude in announcing his final season at the Sharks should become the blueprint for every NRL player. He has put his ego aside to declare that in his last year at Cronulla, he will do whatever is best for the team, including missing out on selection if that’s the way the coach wants to go. But the Sharks need to be careful: experience still matters. And while the likes of Dale Finucane and Cam McInnes provide immense leadership, the Sharks quickly drop away in big-game experience without Graham on the field.3) Painful hangover The Sharks dropped a golden ticket that rarely comes a football team’s way at the end of 2022. With the chance to advance to a grand final qualifier, the Sharks lost to the Cowboys in a thriller on their home track of Shark Park. The silence was deafening from the shattered home fans when the full-time siren sounded. The defeat clearly flattened the Sharks as they were then skittled by the Rabbitohs the next week in an elimination final. So how do the Sharks respond? Has that dented their belief that they are more than just a regular-season team who can mix it with the big boys in the finals? Time will tell. CRYSTAL BALLUnder the new direction of Craig Fitzgibbon, they have shown they are a team building towards a purple period. By finishing second after the regular season, some would argue they got there too soon Regardless, that is the bar the Sharks have how set themselves. They should be aiming for nothing less than a top-four finish. The Sharks must use their pain of their backdoor exit from last season’s finals to become a stronger team. On paper, the Sharks are a youthful forward pack in 2023 – which should give them more leg speed and drive through the middle. The keys to success will be getting more consistency out of their younger forwards in Toby Rudolf and Royce Hunt, a greater influence from Matt Moylan at the back-end of the year, and Will Kennedy improving his resilience at the back.Where will the Sharks finish in 2023? FINISH FOR THE PAST FIVE YEARS2022: 2nd (eliminated in second week of finals)2021: 9th2020: 8th2019: 7th2018: 4th2023 ODDSPremiership: $11Minor premiership: $13To make grand final: $5.50Top four: $2.40Top eight: $1.35Most losses: $81

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