Cronulla came a long way in a short time in 2022. So far, in fact, there’s only a little bit further for them to go.

After exceeding all expectations during Craig Fitzgibbon’s first season in charge, they stormed to second on the ladder on the back of a Dally M-winning year from new recruit Nicho Hynes.

But before the Sharks faithful could carve Hynes’s face into the Wanda sandhills or at least name a bar at Northies in his honour, a straight-sets finals exit put paid to any hope of a second premiership in the Shire.

While putting together such a decorated season only to have it torn away so abruptly has the potential to destabilise, it can also galvanise. And according to veteran forward Cameron McInnes, the Sharks are more than capable of taking yet another step forward this time around.

“I think everyone got an understanding last year of what it takes,” McInnes said.

“We fell short of that and we have more to give. To a man, we have more to give, whether it’s on the field or off the field.

“Guys are growing up in front of us and making the lifestyle changes that are only going to help their footy.

“It’s really cool to see and, while there were a lot of guys who played well last year, there are guys who can take their game to another level and that’s exciting to see.”

Trial form isn’t the kind of thing premiership charges are built on, but the Sharks have impressed through the Pre-Season Challenge, winning both their matches in eye-catching fashion. 

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However, the spectre of those finals losses — a 32-30 golden-point defeat to the Cowboys at home and a 38-16 belting by Souths — loom over Cronulla. They are demons that can’t be exorcised until the team returns to the play-offs again.

Both defeats were out of character with what the Sharks established in the weeks and months beforehand.

They won 11 of their last 12 leading into September and didn’t concede more than 30 points once in that entire run, before things got away from them when it mattered most.

“You have to address it because you can’t forget, but the season does start again,” McInnes said.

“You have to learn your lessons so it doesn’t haunt you again, but those last two games were our worst defensive performances in the second half of the year.

“It’s as simple as that, but we’re putting things in place to fix that. We won’t know until we test ourselves but we’ll see.

“There’s always things you can add. The things we did well, [we need to] do them more consistently.

“We had a lot of high-quality games where we played really well and some we didn’t, and we have to close the gap between those two.

“It’s not complicated. If you run hard and tackle hard more than the other team you’ll be alright.”

One area Fitzgibbon will be looking to solidify in the lead-up to the club’s season opener against the Rabbitohs next Saturday is his middle forwards.

With Aiden Tolman and Andrew Fifita retiring, and both North Queensland and South Sydney controlling the middle of the field in their finals wins last year, landing some extra muscle will be crucial for Cronulla’s premiership hopes.

But the Sharks proved last season they can find the best in seemingly unheralded players. Royce Hunt began the year on the bench and finished the season as one of the club’s best forwards.

The hard-nosed Tom Hazleton, who has impressed in the trials, and new recruit Oregon Kaufusi could shape as the men to help fill the vacancy left behind by the two veterans. And McInnes himself could play a greater role after successfully returning from a serious knee injury last year.

“You never replace guys like that but there’s some young fellas who have had a few opportunities last year and they’ll get some more this year,” McInnes said.

“There’s a lot of competition in the forward pack but there are guys who are ready to step up.”