Craig Fitzgibbon is adamant he won't "blow up" a Cronulla roster with at least $4 million in contract calls to make, insisting the Sharks' rising stars and existing playmakers can make up for missing out on Adam Reynolds.
Fitzgibbon broke a self-imposed silence as the incoming Cronulla coach on Tuesday to defend the club's negotiations with Reynolds, who last week knocked back a lucrative $2 million-plus offer to sign with wooden spooners Brisbane for 2022.
Speaking for the first time since taking on the Sharks post, albeit in a Roosters polo, Fitzgibbon covered the full gamut at Cronulla.
From roster moves and scrum base options to the sacking of John Morris and pursuit of Craig Bellamy and why he chose to make his coaching debut in the Shire after knocking back several rival approaches in recent years.
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'We're not scratching around for players'
With his 20-year tenure as a Roosters player and assistant coach still Fitzgibbon's 9-5, he has juggled recruitment discussions with Sharks staff from 6am - 10pm around his duties at Bondi.
As it stands, the Sharks are understood to have a two or three-year offer tabled to cult favourite prop Toby Rudolf, who has been heavily courted by Canterbury, and have also made clear to fullback Will Kennedy that he is a retention priority.
Chad Townsend's unexpected shift to North Queensland for next season prompted Cronulla's unsuccessful pursuit of Reynolds, with the jury still out on the futures of high-earning halves Shaun Johnson and Matt Moylan.
With that pair and off-contract centre Josh Dugan all chewing up around $800,000 each of Cronulla's salary cap, and Aaron Woods' estimated $600,000 contract expiring this year, the best part of $3 million comes off-contract through that quartet alone.
Fitzgibbon said on Tuesday "it's not necessarily the fact that we'll go to market" after missing out on Reynolds, insisting the club's playing stocks were the biggest attraction in taking his first NRL coaching role.
"I've been having conversations with our existing playmakers at the Sharks," Fitzgibbon said, resolute the club will have a top-flight half to lead them next season.
"The outcome of those discussions hasn't been determined yet.
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"There's a perception that we're screaming or scratching around for players. I'm really comfortable with what we've got at the Sharks.
"I want to go and work with the players I've got at the Sharks. That's why I'm going there.
"They've been together through the juniors system, there's a whole host of them, whilst [they are] relatively inexperienced at NRL level they played a lot of junior footy together.
"I think it's important to have players spend time together. I'm excited by that.
"It's not about ringing in the changes and I'm not saying there won't be. I'm really comfortable with the players that are there."
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Fitzgibbon is comfortable with how Cronulla handled negotiations with Reynolds.
After meeting the incoming coach the Sharks were firm favourites to land his signature, only for Brisbane to swoop with a lucrative three-year deal, with even a late upped Cronulla offer falling short.
Fitzgibbon echoed Reynolds comments last week that took umbrage at suggestions Cronulla disrespected or dawdled during negotiations with the No.7.
"If you're looking for a hook that no one wants to come to the club, it's pretty quick to draw that conclusion," Fitzgibbon said.
"He's a bloody good halfback, we would have liked to have got him.
"Adam was upfront and open about the negotiation. It was fine from his end.
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"I had respectful conversation with Adam about the whole thing and no dramas either way, he just saw a different experience in going to Brisbane and you've got to respect that that was what he wanted to do for his family."
As for the rest of Cronulla's roster, Fitzgibbon reiterated that " We're not sitting idle. We've got the ball rolling with the ones we want to retain."
A "gentleman's agreement" of sorts exists with Trent Robinson and Nick Politis about poaching Roosters players, though anyone off-contract is fair game, as they are for all 15 rivals.
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One of the uglier coaching splits in recent memory has given Fitzgibbon his chance.
When news broke of Fitzgibbon all but being over the line, Morris's camp maintained he was told he remained the "front-runner" to coach on in 2022, only for the moves to be set in stone within 24 hours.
It's one of the reasons Fitzgibbon has kept his head down until now.
But despite the mud worn by CEO Dino Mezzatesta, chair Steve Mace, and an 0-5 record since Morris was rolled, Fitzgibbon said he maintains faith in Cronulla's top brass.
"From the club's point of view, they showed an enormous amount of trust in myself," Fitzgibbon said.
"It was obviously some trying circumstances, but the trust that they've shown me, I trust them in all the dealings that I've had with them so far, I've found them [to be] good guys and really open and I plan on repaying that trust."
Fitzgibbon indicated he plans to work with elements of Cronulla's current coaching staff as he assembles his backroom support.
Panthers assistant Cameron Ciraldo won't be among them after knocking back an approach when Fitzgibbon himself signed, though it's believed interim Sharks coach Josh Hannay still features in Fitzgibbon's plans for next season.
Veteran Melbourne mentor Craig Bellamy remains the other element after being pursued by the Sharks in a coaching director's role for several months.
Mezzatesta told NRL.com on Tuesday that no decision on Bellamy's future has been communicated to Cronulla, though most in the game believe he will coach on at the Storm for one more year.
"As a young coach, who wouldn't want to work with Craig Bellamy right?" Fitzgibbon said, having last spoken to Bellamy a few weeks ago.
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"I've been fortunate ... I've played underneath him at Origin and Country Origin level, so I have a good relationship with him and he'd be a coup for the club.
"I'm not sure where that is at this current point in time. I think the indications are he might be staying at Melbourne, I'm not certain.
"But the last discussions I had, he hadn't made a decision. I'd love to have him around."
Ball boy to great black, white and blue hope
Fitzgibbon's roots in The Shire stretch right back to the Ronson/Caltex Field days when his old man Allan was coach and he ran the sidelines as Sharks ball boy.
As a Roosters life member though, having played and coached through two of the foundation club's most successful eras, it's an easy assumption that Fitzgibbon will bring red, white and blue DNA south with him.
"I'll have to be my own man. If I walk into a job and try and act like a different coach I'll fall over," Fitzgibbon countered when that was put to him.
"There's some stuff at the Roosters that I believe in so, of course, I'll stick to those [principles].
"But I've also got to develop my own style, it's a different position. It's time for me to stand up as a coach and as a man myself."
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The 43-year-old has been a marked man for some time, knocking back lucrative coaching offers from the Dragons and Warriors last year.
Remarkably, the man touted as the next NRL coach in waiting for years has held doubts about his own credentials until recently.
"I didn't want to rush it, I didn't feel ready for some strange reason," Fitzgibbon said.
"In discussions with Trent [Robinson] and other coaches that I trust, I had to really wait until I was 100 per cent confident and then on top of that I had given my word to Trent and Nick that I would see out two years of my contract.
"The position that came up with Cronulla I obviously had some history there with my father coaching ... I like the look of the club.
"It's in a financially stable position now, they've got a refurbished stadium and club, the players and the roster there - I just see a lot of potential there. It's exciting."