Sharks eye redemption in spicy rematch with Rabbitohs
Premiership winner Matt Johns has identified Cronulla as his title dark horses as they eye atonement for their lame end to the 2022 NRL season.
The Sharks host South Sydney in their season opener on Saturday night, six months after the Rabbitohs put Craig Fitzgibbon's side to the sword in a 38-12 semi-final slaughtering.
That defeat, after falling to North Queensland 32-30 in golden point in the first week of the finals, still stings.
"There's no hiding we were very disappointed with how we finished. That wasn't a reflection of how much we grew as a team throughout the year," Cronulla club captain Wade Graham told AAP.
Graham is preferring to look ahead, adamant the Sharks have the belief to challenge for the title after taking a giant stride forward last season under first-year coach Fitzgibbon.
They finished second in the minor premiership behind Penrith, after missing the finals in 2021.
"We probably surprised ourselves a bit last year," Graham said.
"New coach, lot of new players in key positions. New systems. There were a lot of unknowns for us going into the season.
"We sort of had expectations but no concrete idea of how we were going to go.
"But throughout the year we found it. We found our rhythm, played some good footy and managed to climb the ladder.
"We are in a much better spot than we were last year, another year in with our style of footy and our expectations and we get a chance on Saturday night here to start the season off against Souths who were probably the best team throughout the trials."
Johns, who ended his career at Cronulla in 2002 after winning the 1997 grand final with Newcastle, also believes the Sharks will grow from last year's experience.
"A lot of those young blokes who went into the semi-finals last year hadn't been there before. They lost their way a little bit under pressure," he told AAP.
"They went a little too sideways and away from what they're good at.
"Watching them in the trial games, I've loved what they've done.
"I've got them in the top four and absolutely a premiership threat.
"When someone asked me, 'Who's your smoky this year?' I said, 'The Sharks.
"I know they'll be in and around the four but I think they can go that next step."
Graham said "that's the plan".
"We certainly showed through our displays last year that when we get it right and put it together, we're a tough team to handle," said the last remnant of the Sharks' 2016 premiership-winning team.
"We have confidence and we believe in ourselves for sure.
"It's just about us trying to improve and getting better now. We weren't good enough last year.
"But hopefully the things we've done in our pre-season and with the growth in our team, we'll be good enough this year."
The Sharks will open their campaign without injured Dally M Medal winner Nicho Hynes, with Braydon Trindall filling the No.7 jumper instead.