After being bundled out of last year’s finals series in straight sets, retiring Cronulla champion Wade Graham believes the Sharks’ 2023 campaign has prepared them to be more than just cannon fodder in September.
The Sharks skipper said fullback Connor Tracey was likely to overcome a knee issue for Saturday’s elimination final with the Sydney Roosters, also revealing first-choice No. 1 Will Kennedy is nearing a return to full fitness.
Graham said Cronulla were keen to put things right after last year’s disappointing finals showing where they failed to capitalise on their second-placed finish and lost back-to-back games.
The Sharks have not won a finals game since the 2018 season.
Mindful that critics had already written his side off, Graham said the ups and downs of 2023 had helped instil a resilience in the Sharks that would pay off in the finals.
“Sometimes you need to go through adversity and come through it to really grow that belief and find that strength of character,” Graham told AAP.
“We hit the skids and went on a deep slide, we got a lot of criticism which was warranted given how we were playing.
“We had to come out of it on a tough road home against teams fighting us for a spot in the eight - Canberra, Souths, North Queensland, Newcastle.
“I think we are in better shape than last year but in saying that nothing is guaranteed, we’re playing a good team who has won five straight.”
The hope for Cronulla is that they can get their strongest side out for their showdown with the Roosters.
Coach Craig Fitzgibbon faced a potential finals headache with Tracey limping out of Sunday’s final-round win over Canberra with a knee issue.
With Kennedy (hamstring) also out, the Sharks coach would have had to turn to rookie Daniel Atkinson, who has played just two minutes of NRL all season, or veteran Matt Moylan.
But Graham was confident Tracey would shake off his issue and be ready for the duel with Roosters No. 1 James Tedesco.
“I assume that Fitzy will name him,” Graham said.
“My understanding was that he’d jammed his knee and that he only came off as a precaution, Connor has been playing amazing for us and he’s had some bad luck for us with injuries.
“Will is getting close but I don’t know how close he’ll be.”
With 296 first-grade games to his credit, Graham can join the magical 300-club if the Sharks make the grand final in his 16th and last season before hanging up the boots.