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Sharks say no Fitzgibbon deal done as crucial Morris talks loom

Cronulla powerbrokers will meet with John Morris's management on Monday in what looms as a critical juncture in the ongoing saga around the Sharks coaching post.

Cronulla CEO Dino Mezzatesta denied media reports on Sunday that the club is closing in on highly rated Roosters assistant Craig Fitzgibbon to replace Morris in 2022.

Morris's agent Chris Orr is due to meet with Mezzatesta on Monday, with the club having anticipated a call on the Sharks coach within the next fortnight.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported Fitzgibbon has all but agreed to a three-year deal to take charge from next season, but Mezzatesta denied any agreement has been reached.

Former international Craig Fitzgibbon.
Former international Craig Fitzgibbon. ©NRL Photos

"Bomber [Morris] is still our coach and we have not signed a deal with anyone," Mezzatesta told NRL.com via text message on Sunday.

It's understood Morris's management has been told the same by Cronulla officials given the conjecture around their client.

Injured playmaker Shaun Johnson is off contract and facing an uncertain future himself with the Sharks unwilling to talk contract extensions until he returns to the paddock in coming weeks.

But having played some of his best footy under Morris last season, the veteran Kiwi international gave a passionate defence of his coach in the same vein as several teammates in recent weeks.

"I think everyone that's aware of the situation would definitely be feeling the same about it," Johnson said during an interview on Sunday Night with Matty Johns on Fox Sports.

"I look at the facts. I don't know how you can have a coach that has been thrown in at the deep end right from the start. [Morris] had to take over a difficult situation with Flanagan leaving.

"He’s gone after it, taken the side to the finals the last two years and finds himself in the position he is now. It’s certainly disappointing."

Morris's future has been a focus for several months since his management's push for an extension last year was knocked back by Cronulla management.

Fitzgibbon – regarded as an NRL coach in waiting for several seasons – is contracted to the Roosters for next year after knocking back previous approaches from the Warriors and Dragons during their most recent coaching upheaval.

His loyalty to the Tricolours since his playing days is believed to have earned Fitzgibbon the club's blessing to pursue an early contract release if it meant landing a head coaching role elsewhere.

The Sharks have been weighing up their options for some time, approaching Storm champion Craig Bellamy regarding a coaching director or consultancy position.

Links to ex-coach Shane Flanagan have been roundly denied while it's understood Penrith assistant Cameron Ciraldo has also been discussed internally amid the uncertainty around Morris.

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Cronulla have a host of their biggest earners coming off contract at the end of 2021, including Johnson, Josh Dugan, Aaron Woods and Matt Moylan, a quartet believed to be taking up the best part of $3 million of the club's roster.

A crop of outstanding local juniors, the majority of whom were brought through the Sharks system under Morris, make for strong building blocks if a top-heavy salary cap can be realigned next season.

"He hasn’t had any control over the roster, he’s been in a situation where our cap has been shot the last couple of years and he’s made do with what he’s got," Johnson said.

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"He’s got us all on board, so I genuinely can’t speak highly enough of him.

"If I was at the club next year I’d love Bomber [Morris] to be around.

"For me personally, he has definitely brought a better version of myself out.

"Coming over from New Zealand, what I got with Bomber was someone who believed in me and he pushed me every day."

Despite a terrible injury toll this season the Sharks still sit 2-3 after five rounds and came within an ace of beating the Raiders in round two, when only some wayward Chad Townsend goalkicking cost them.

A win over the Roosters on Saturday would have been a huge boost for Morris but the loss of Wade Graham and Josh Dugan to head knocks and a late fade out eventually proved their downfall in a 26-18 loss at the SCG.

In the coming fortnight the Sharks face the Knights and Bulldogs in two winnable games before a tough stretch against the Storm, Panthers and Rabbitohs.