When John Morris helped establish the Sharks Academy in 2015, the pathway for Cronulla’s elite juniors was demonstrated with an evolution of man-type timeline.
It featured a 15-year-old Bronson Xerri, 17-year-old Kyle Flanagan, under 20s hooker Jayden Brailey and NRL captain Paul Gallen.
Four years later, Xerri, Flanagan, Brailey and Gallen will play together for the first time in Friday night’s match against Melbourne at PointsBet Stadium.
With fullback Will Kennedy and hooker Blayke Brailey also in the team, along with rookie second-rower Briton Nikora, the foresight of Morris, former coach Shane Flanagan, ex-CEO Steve Noyce and physical performance manager Andrew Gray is paying off.
In the opening seven rounds, Morris has handed five players – Blake Brailey, Nikora, Xerri, Kennedy and winger Ronaldo Mulitalo - their NRL debuts, which is the most by the club since John Lang’s first season as Cronulla coach in 1994.
In addition, 20-year-old playmaker Kyle Flanagan has been named in the starting line-up for the first time against the Storm following the hamstring injury suffered by star recruit Shaun Johnson during last weekend’s 29-6 loss to Brisbane.
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"A few of us boys from the academy are starting to come through now and there are some others who people haven’t heard about yet," Flanagan said.
Morris was appointed the elite development coach of the Sharks Academy in 2015 and before retiring from playing the season before he had completed his Masters of Coaching at Sydney University.
The black, white and blueprint
His major assignment was how to implement an elite training performance training centre and Morris helped put the theory into practice.
Modelled on the Junior Elite Training Squad (JETS) program developed by Brian Smith while Morris was playing at Parramatta from 2003 to 2006, the Sharks Academy gave the best talent in the club’s junior representative teams an opportunity to train like NRL players.
"They identified us as elite athletes so they obviously saw a future in us," Xerri said. "We trained hard, I used to get up at 5am to do gym sessions when it was still pitch black, then we’d do a bit of speed and skill on the field. It was twice a week before school."
The school run
The players would receive breakfast after completing each training session and the coaching staff, including Morris, would drop them off at their various schools in a fleet of minivans.
"When they first built this academy here and they came up with all the development programs I don’t think too many clubs had it," Flanagan said.
"I think Penrith followed after that. We have been training like NRL players since we were 14 years old."
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It has also enabled the young players to develop a relationship with Morris, who coached Cronulla’s under 20s in 2016 and 2017 before being promoted to assist Flanagan with the NRL side last season.
"This is the end point of that," Morris said. "Blayke Brailey was in the Harold Matts, Kyle Flanagan and Will Kennedy were in SG Ball, Briton and Sione Katoa came through our under 20s and Bronson wasn’t even in the Harold Matts when we won it in 2015.
"It’s been a long-term process and to see them now come through and handed their debut is just such a great feeling. It shows that we’ve got our development side of things right.
"No doubt that was a good little period for the club and I don’t foresee that happening every year but the challenge for us now is to identify who are the next Blayke Brailey and the next Bronson Xerri because a lot of these kids are local juniors."
The ones that got away
In recent seasons, the Sharks have lost the likes of Tyrone Peachey, Josh Addo-Carr, Curtis Scott, Jaeman Salmon, Jamayne Isaako and Michael Lichaa but Morris is determined to ensure the best junior talent remains at the club.
"We have been doing it now for a couple of years and it has definitely made a difference," Morris said. "They come in and train like NRL players before and after school and we are starting to see the fruits of our labour.
"Most of those guys have trained with the NRL squad so they are very tight with the NRL boys. All of the players have the belief in them that they belong there so they are not overawed by the situation and it has just made their transition smooth."
Xerri said the academy had prepared him for playing NRL and with Nikora suspended, Josh Dugan breaking down in the warm-up and Johnson tearing his hamstring, the 18-year-old was suddenly the only remaining member of Cronulla’s regular right edge in last Saturday night’s match against Brisbane.
"Coming through the system you know the staff and what is expected of you. I got to grow up Kyle and Blayke and Jayden, and I played with a few of the other boys in Harold Matts and SG Ball," Xerri said.
"It’s unreal to see John as the first-grade coach now and I just feel comfortable being here and playing under him."
The relationship between the pair enabled the club to film and share video footage of Morris telling Xerri he had been selected for his NRL debut in round four against Parramatta, which went viral and earned the Sharks a lot of accolades.
"It was amazing," Morris said. "We were blown away by his reaction. I thought he was coming to my office because he knew what I was going to tell him and then he just broke down. The passion he had for the club was so raw.
"You only get one chance to make your debut and it is a special time so you want to try and make it special for them. They all react differently but we will look to do things like that again."
The moment Xerri learned of his debut
Xerri said he was happy for the club to post the video footage on social media.
"It was just in the moment, it went viral but it wasn’t about that," he said. "It was just to show how much it meant to me. It has always been a dream of mine to play first grade and it was a raw moment to see my reaction.
"It was very emotional, finding out that you are going to achieve your childhood dream."