More than $3 million in salary cap money to spend, sponsors clamouring to get on board, a production line of local talent, regular finals contenders and a hierarchy with ambitions to become one of the NRL’s leading franchises within coming seasons.
There's plenty of appeal to coaching Cronulla and Craig Fitzgibbon’s decision to reject previous approaches from the Knights, Warriors and Dragons to wait for the right job may prove to be wise if he takes charge of the club next season.
Cronulla CEO Dino Mezzatesta met with coach John Morris and his agent, Chris Orr, on Monday after reports that the 40-year-old coach’s contract would not be extended beyond this season. They were assured that the Sharks were yet to make a call about his future.
Morris has helped to rebuild the club after three years of the Sharks being effectively unable to recruit players due to salary cap restraints he inherited when appointed on the eve of the 2019 season.
In that time he has taken Cronulla to back-to-back finals appearances and has had to endure the club being forced to play away from PointsBet Stadium since the start of last season due to the redevelopment of Sharkies Leagues Club.
He's ready: Fittler backs Fitzgibbon to succeed at Sharks
The club’s reluctance to re-sign Morris while they explore other options is making it increasingly unlikely he will get the opportunity to bring new talent to Cronulla for the first time since Shane Flanagan was deregistered in 2018 over integrity breaches.
The Sharks have never been in a stronger position off the field, with sponsors pouring up to $4 million into the club and no space remaining on their playing kit.
On the field, Cronulla are finally able to open the purse strings to sign players after three years of salary cap restrictions caused by past breaches.
St George Illawarra captain Cameron McInnes has already inked a four-year deal and with 14 members of their squad off contract at the end of the season, Cronulla have more than $3 million to spend on retaining or recruiting players for 2022.
Morris, who oversaw the development of many of the young players now in Cronulla’s NRL squad after helping establish the Sharks Academy in 2015, has the backing of most of the club’s stars, with Shaun Johnson speaking strongly in support of his coach on Fox League on Sunday night.
Yet Cronulla officials do not expect to lose any players they want to keep if Fitzgibbon were to be appointed in place of Morris and talks are underway with the likes of Toby Rudolf, Will Kennedy and Siosifa Talakai about new deals, regardless of who is the coach next season.
After taking Cronulla to the finals for the past two seasons, while operating with a budget $300,000 below rival clubs as a penalty for cap breaches dating back to 2013, it is widely agreed Morris has done a good job in trying circumstances.
Mezzatesta and the board, headed by chairman Steve Mace, have ambitions for the club to finish in the top four on a regular basis like the Storm, Roosters and Rabbitohs, and want the best possible coach to achieve their goal.
Every try from Round 5
Shades of Bellamy
Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy was approached at the end of last season about a role with Cronulla and is yet to decide his future but it is unlikely Fitzgibbon would be interested in leaving the Roosters if he wasn’t calling the shots.
The former NSW and Australian back-rower has been considered the next coach in waiting for a number of years but as Bellamy did when offered the Wests Tigers job in 2002, he has knocked back approaches until the right opportunity comes up.
Get Caught Up: Round 5 must-see moments
There is a long list of highly rated coaches who jumped at the first chance to take charge of an NRL team only to be spat back out of an unforgiving system, with Garth Brennan, Dean Pay and Steve Price among recent examples.
Wayne Bennett forewarned Stephen Kearney about taking charge of Parramatta in 2011, while another former NRL coach once told this columnist after being interviewed for a job that he couldn’t say no if offered the role but would be "dodging a bullet" if he missed out.
"There's two ways of looking at it - it's an opportunity if you get it but if you don't then you've been saved a lot of stress," said the coach, who finished runner-up for the job but has since coached at rival clubs.
Fitzgibbon began coaching at the Roosters under Brian Smith in 2012 and became Trent Robinson’s right-hand man the following season, helping the club to premierships in 2013, 2018 and 2019.
He was approached to take over from 1999 grand final teammate Nathan Brown at Newcastle last season and could have coached the Warriors or Dragons this year but preferred to stay loyal to the Roosters.
Roosters chairman Nick Politis has given Fitzgibbon his blessing to take the job at Cronulla, where his father Allan coached from 1988 to 1991, if he is offered the gig.
NRL Round-Up - Round 5
Morris wins plenty of admirers
Morris still holds out hope of retaining the Cronulla job and has been told no decision has been made but the club is aware of the options if they decide to go in another direction.
Besides Fitzgibbon, who lives in the Illawarra's northern suburbs, other names linked to the job include Penrith assistant coach Cameron Ciraldo – a former Sharks player – and Price, who was an assistant to Flanagan and has recently announced his departure from Warrington to return home to Australia.
Unable to recruit after taking over from Flanagan at short notice at the start of the 2019 season, Morris has blooded 11 debutants and players like Kennedy, Rudolf, Talakai, Blayke Brailey, Briton Nikora, Braden Hamlin-Uele, Ronaldo Mulitalo and Sione Katoa have become mainstays of the team.
Kennedy isolates Walker in the defensive line
Having started as a development coach with the Sharks after his retirement in 2014, the 300-gamer has been involved in nurturing the club’s young talent and was able to speak at Cronulla’s season launch about rookie centre Jackson Ferris running the Wanda sand dunes as a 15-year-old.
At the same time, he has managed to get former representative stars Josh Dugan, Matt Moylan and Aaron Woods performing well on a regular basis after battling injuries and poor form for two years, while being prepared to dump Andrew Fifita for the opening five rounds of the season.
Dugan, Moylan, Woods and Johnson are among the big names off contract at the end of the season and if they are not re-signed Cronulla will have about $3 million to spend, although some of that money will be absorbed by upgrades for the likes of Kennedy and Rudolf.
Fifita, who is signed until the end of 2022 on a deal reportedly worth $800,000 per season, is also considering his future and has been linked with a move to Wakefield to play alongside his brother David and help him prepare for the end-of-season World Cup with Tonga.
However, Morris appears unlikely to receive the opportunity to recruit new players as the board and Mezzatesta have been reluctant to publicly back him whenever speculation has arisen over his future at the club during the past six months.
No matter how well the team performs in coming weeks against Newcastle, Canterbury and Melbourne, it appears likely that Morris is destined to become the first NRL coaching casualty of the 2021 season.
The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARL Commission, NRL clubs or state associations.