A couple of years ago, following his promotion to the top job in the Shire following Shane Flanagan’s sacking, I penned a piece here on The Roar asking the question: “Is John Morris too nice to coach the Sharks?”
The gist of it was basically that Morris was a hard-working, loyal, decent individual and that he definitely deserved the chance to coach.
But Cronulla had gone from basket-case to premiership winners in a short space of time by leaning into being the heal of the NRL. How would renowned good bloke John Morris get a team of thoroughly unlikeable fellas (when they cross the white line, that is, I’m sure they’re just a treat to catch up with after Mass on a Sunday morning) to buy into his way of coaching?
As I put it, “I just wonder whether [Morris has] got the personality to get this club to fire. Whether he’s sufficiently scum-bag enough to get a team full of grubs to play at their bastardly, brilliant best.”
A little over two years later and Morris is no longer the coach at Cronulla. But my concerns about him being too nice to get the best out of a bad-boy playing group were not at all what saw the lad from Scone receive his marching orders.
Morris’ time as coach of the Sharks was a reflection of his entire career as a player: squeezing every last drop of effort out in order to achieve impressive results from limited talent.
He got serious buy-in from just about all his charges and despite the fact he was thrown into the top job in rushed circumstances, was hamstrung by a smaller salary cap, had underperforming veterans on massive cash, and questionable stability in the front office, Morris achieved a 100 per cent success rate in terms of making the finals.
What more can you ask of the man?
Well, the argument goes, how about the ability to beat better teams and be a serious contender to make the grand final, rather than just limping into the top eight.
To which the response is, give Morris a full salary cap, the chance to put players who actually perform on the big contracts, and the full support of a settled front office. Then we see what he can do.
He deserved that opportunity.
There was a pretty major level of support and sympathy when Dean Pay got his marching orders from the Bulldogs, with the reasonable punter recognising he had been given a side that was only worthy of wooden spoons, yet he succeeded in avoiding last place throughout his entire, short tenure.
Pay got more out of a team than could have been expected. That he didn’t make the finals once was hardly his fault with the roster he inherited. And he probably deserved to finally have a crack at the gig when salary cap pressures had been eased and he could recruit a legitimate first-grade team.
Instead, ‘next big thing’ Trent Barrett gets to spend the Dogs’ cash. Thus far, the outcome is an 0-6 start to the season.
So the idea that the Sharks needed to get Craig Fitzgibbon because he’s the next big thing is a massive roll of the dice.
That the Roosters assistant wasn’t willing to sign elsewhere until now – despite reported offers from Newcastle, the Warriors and St George Illawarra in the recent past – has fed the myth that he is another Trent Robinson.
But while it may have been difficult to turn down a head coaching gig when there are so few of them, I don’t buy into the idea that Fitzgibbon saying no until now means anything more than that he had a deal keeping him at the Chooks until the end of 2021 and it’s not a good idea to break contracts with a club run by one of Australia’s wealthiest men.
Fitzgibbon will leave Easts with Nick Politis’ blessing. I don’t know that Adam O’Brien necessarily did. And, if it’s ever on the cards, I suspect it’s just a good idea to have a billionaire consider you a mate.
As for what he gets at Cronulla? Well, it’s a pretty sweet deal. Those underperforming veterans are either going to get turfed or accept massive pay cuts to stay next year, giving Fitzgibbon a reported $3 million with which to go shopping.
More importantly, he gets the benefit of all the hard work Morris has done bringing through unheralded rookies like Toby Rudolf, Will Kennedy, Connor Tracey and Teig Wilton (well, probably Teig, he is John’s nephew, so he may not want to stick around after what they’ve done to his uncle).
Finally, there’s a board who need to back him to the hilt given the way Fitzgibbon got the job.
Basically, he gets what John Morris earned.
The idea that Morris had reached his top speed as a coach, as evidenced by his failure to beat a team that placed higher than his eighth-placed side in all of 2020, is completely arguable given the handbrake was firmly on while he was at the wheel.
Why not give him the chance by extending his contract with some basic clauses? Two more years, on actual first-grade coach money, with the proviso that missing the finals would allow the club to terminate the deal.
The fear that they would miss out on Fitzgibbon is such an immature reason to sack someone – “What if we don’t get an untried, untested head coach? How would we ever forgive ourselves?”
Ultimately, I guess my concerns about Morris were founded – he was too nice for Cronulla. Not because his decency put off the players, but because the club’s board ended up being the ones who showed a decided lack of decency.