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Opinion

Backing, not sacking, young coaches is what brings results

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Expert
11th April, 2021
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Reports coming out over the weekend that Cronulla head coach John Morris is just keeping a seat warm for Roosters assistant Craig Fitzgibbon show again how rough life is for an NRL coach.

Morris has endured months of speculation about his role, clearly being fuelled in drops to media by people who would prefer he wasn’t there.

The fans seem to back him, maybe driven by a sense of justice and fairness more than anything, but Morris would have to have known his card is marked during Sharks CEO Dino Mezzatesta and chair Steve Mace’s quixotic (and unnecessarily public) pursuit of Melbourne Storm icon Craig Bellamy.

Morris is 24-27 as Sharks coach and they’ve exited the finals in Week 1 in two seasons under his guidance. But that’s not the point here.

The point is how Morris has managed a complete and utter omnishambles of a place after he signed a three-year deal in early 2019. He took the wheel of a club in the shadow of the salary cap scandal and which had just had a premiership coach canned after flouting his punishment for his part of Cronulla’s infamous ‘supplements saga’, the impacts of which still weigh heavily on the club.

Old and busted Sharks heroes of yesteryear were locked in to massive deals and couldn’t be moved on or paid out. Bronson Xerri, arguably his best young talent, got sent up the river for four years by the Australian Sports Anti-doping Authority. Morris has also had to juggle an incredible injury list from week to week that has impacted the availability of his best players.

John Morris, Cronulla Sharks coach

John Morris (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Surely a rookie coach turning that shitshow into a 50/50 record and back-to-back finals appearances has earned another crack.

Morris has been able to keep that Cronulla grit, because the team fights every week and is still one of the toughest match-ups in the league. That doesn’t happen unless there’s pride in the playing group and commitment to the team.

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And this is where justice and fairness comes into it. Sharks fans and rugby league fans want to see Morris get some clear air at a job he’s clearly got an affinity with.

And no, I don’t count Saturday night’s game when the Sharks copped four tries in 20 minutes to blow an 18-4 lead against the Roosters, because the Roosters have done that to much better sides, and when they’re up and going there’s bugger all you can do to stop them.

Judging Morris’s tenure on a bad 20 minutes against one of the best rugby league teams we’ve ever seen is just moronic – not that it’ll stop people doing it anyway.

Mezzatesta and co have big things in mind for Cronulla and haven’t been shy about their ambitions, which don’t seem to include a popular coach who has performed well.

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When Morris signed on, then chief executive Barry Russell raved about his ability, attitude and work ethic, saying he was “very deserving of this opportunity and I’m thrilled for him”.

“He was instrumental in setting up our successful elite academy and junior pathways and has been a big part of our club, from his playing days to now coaching, for going on ten years,” said Russell.

Things are different now apparently.

Two other coaches are also in the midst of a tough initiation. At Canterbury, Trent Barrett is trying to rebuild a club from the bottom up. The problem is that Bulldogs fans are sick and tired of seeing their club apparently being rebuilt from the bottom up, and Barrett’s arrival with a wave of good publicity and hope late last year was supposed to be a turning point.

That PR campaign wasn’t Barrett’s fault, and you can’t blame the club for wanting to make the biggest and happiest noise it could leading into a season. But so far the reality has not been in the same galaxy as the expectation.

Todd Payten finally got his first win as coach of North Queensland yesterday, and it was well earned, holding off a huge charge from Wests Tigers.

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Payten is at the Cowboys for three years. He came with a great reputation after his handling of the 2020 New Zealand Warriors, going 6-8 but more importantly holding a team of men together who had spent months away from their families in the midst of a global pandemic.

Now Payten is captain of a boat coated in well-set barnacles that will refuse any attempt to remove them. If scuttlebutt is to be believed, players don’t like Payten’s honest approach and aren’t acclimatising to a regime different to the one Paul Green had for six years prior. That’s the player’s problem, not Payten’s.

Both coaches have come with reasonably high expectations, whether that’s realistic or not. Fans need to be realistic in what they expect from their clubs and not buy into backgrounded campaigns coming through media outlets to shift pressure from boards and CEOs.

It’s up to the club administrators at North Queensland and Canterbury to hold their nerve better than Cronulla have to let their coaches get the club facing he right direction.

And if the stories about Fitzgibbon’s appointment are true, then Dino Mezzatesta, Steve Mace and the rest of the Cronulla board better be willing and able to give the new coach every available resource to help him succeed. But given what’s happened to a loyal servant in Morris, who’s to say they’ll be able to park their egos and get out of the way?