Cronulla did all John Morris expected they would do in his first game as an NRL coach, and it was almost enough to give him a first-up win against the club where he began his playing career.
Newcastle won a see-sawing contest 14-8 courtesy of an intercept try in the 75th minute by former Sharks winger Edrick Lee, who was one of seven players making their debuts for the Knights at McDonald Jones Stadium on Friday night.
Morris, a Scone Thoroughbreds junior who started his 14-year career at the Knights in 2001, was pleased with most aspects of Cronulla’s play but lamented their poor handling and unforced errors.
The Sharks defended grimly, worked hard for each other, and hung in until the 80th minute of a tight contest, but were not good enough to deny a Newcastle side determined to re-establish themselves as a premiership force.
“You can’t expect to win any game making 12 errors. We completed at about 65 per cent,” Morris told the media after the game.
“That was our focus going into the game. We spoke about it all week, actually, just making sure that we hung on to the footy, playing quite simple and getting through our sets, but we put too much pressure on ourselves.
“It wasn’t just the errors, it was the tackles they happened on too. We had two off a scrum and didn’t field a kick-off, so there’s 18 plays you just throw straight into the bin.
“We just couldn’t apply the pressure that we came here to do.”
Former Warriors playmaker Shaun Johnson had his moments in his first game for the Sharks, but was unable to play with the same precision he showed in combination with Chad Townsend, Matt Moylan, Josh Dugan and Josh Morris in their 30-6 trial win against Newcastle a fortnight ago.
But Morris said Cronulla’s errors could not be attributed to new players settling into key positions.
“Even Gal’s drop at the end there, they’re just uncharacteristic,” he said, referring to captain Paul Gallen spilling the ball in the final minutes.
“It wasn’t so much a structural thing or players in different positions, it was just individually blokes dropping the footy. In saying that, I thought we created a lot more opportunities than Newcastle did, but we just couldn’t finish them.”
Morris was puzzled by the decision to disallow a try to Dugan in the 42nd minute, when the bunker ruled winger Sione Katoa deliberately batted the ball forward recovering Dugan’s grubber kick in the lead-up before passing it back inside to Dugan.
“I’m still scratching my head. I couldn’t quite follow that one,” Morris said.
“I thought that was an excellent piece of skill to keep the ball alive and create a try out of nothing.
“We lost that one but that’s footy.
“You’ve got to roll with the punches … we got back in the fight, scored a try, then not long after that we got a penalty after that set and had them on the ropes, I thought, at 8-all.
“We moved the ball to our right and there was a lot of space out there, but our ex-Shark Edrick Lee knew the move and came up and got the intercept. That was probably the game actually, that play.”
Morris said the Sharks did a good job containing Kalyn Ponga and Mitchell Pearce but had to be better at executing their attacking plays against Gold Coast at Shark Park next Saturday.
“They’re a tough bunch, and they’ll defend all day if they have to, but sometimes that’s our biggest downfall because we put the pumpkins on in attack and we’re happy to defend our line all day,” he said.
“I think they had twice the amount of good ball than we did but we defended our line.
“We were brave, we were good, we turned them away, we turned them away, and we found a way to keep saving tries."