After yet another loss at the hands of the Warriors in Round 20, the Sharks are facing a sobering reality — they can’t beat top eight teams.
Craig Fitzgibbon’s side travelled to New Zealand and were flogged 44-12 with the Cronulla coach admitting “we got taught a lesson” in the post-match press conference.
Despite only missing the finals once since 2015, their poor record against teams in the top eight has been exposed in 2023.
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After 20 rounds the Sharks have lost six out of seven games against teams currently in line to play finals football, beating only the Eels in Round 2 in a tight 30-26 affair.
In Fitzgibbon’s first year in charge in 2022 Cronulla finished second after the regular season, but still were only able to take points from four of 11 games against the top eight.
They also flunked out of the finals in straight sets, losing to the Cowboys and then the Rabbitohs.
In 2021 their record against contenders was even worse, winning only two from 11 games and in 2020 it hit rock bottom when they were unable to score victory in their nine games against top eight teams.
The 2019 season yielded a similar result — three from 12 — and veteran rugby league reporter believes the Sharks are buoyed by a “softer” draw than other NRL clubs.
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“Each year they have finished in the finals across that period, I’ve been banging on about the NRL draw for quite some time,” Rothfield said on the Big Sports Breakfast.
“But because they aren’t one of the superstar sides, they don’t get I don’t think as tough a draw as the more glamorous sides the Roosters, Rabbitohs, Storm and the Broncos.
“So I think in the last couple of years they have benefited from a softer draw and they keep belting up the weaker sides and falling against the better sides.”
As it stands the Sharks six in sixth place on the NRL ladder and will likely play finals football once again.
But, if history is anything to go by, their hopes of lifting the NRL trophy after the finals series are slim to none if they can’t turn their form around.
The Sharks have the best attack in the competition, but their defence was a key issue that needs to be fixed according to Fitzgibbon.
“Our edge defence wasn’t good enough,” Fitzgibbon said.
“We were comfortable trading sets there early but it works both ways right, you hold the ball and trade sets and then you get opportunities. But it felt like the majority of the game we were defending our try line because we gave them the opportunity to do that.
“We need more pressure, better defence and to earn the right to score more points. They showed us the way there.”
But for Rothfield, he believes the Sharks coaching staff need to make several tough decisions.
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Rothfield called for Fitzgibbon to axe both Wade Graham and Matt Moylan, with both players currently 32-years of age.
Cronulla boast one of the competition’s best back-up halves in Braydon Trindall and also have several young edge and middle forward, including Tom Hazelton and Jesse Colquhoun, who could be set for more responsibility.
“I am just hoping Craig Fitzgibbon, he is the most loyal of all NRL coaches and he has been really patient with a couple of guys who are getting to the back-end of their careers,” Rothfield said.
“Matt Moylan and Wade Graham, and I think with seven games to go their finals berth on the line I think he needs to take a long, hard look this week before naming the side.”
With only seven games left in the 2023 regular season — the Sharks will need to win four games to remain in the finals race.
But it could be a tough task, facing the Panthers and Rabbitohs away as well as the Raiders at Sharks Park.
Outside of the trio in the top eight, Cronulla will also do battle with several teams in the finals race grouped from 9th to 12th in the Cowboys, Titans, Sea Eagles and Knights.
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