Sharks coach Craig Fitzgibbon admits he will be “nervous but excited” as he watches his team play their first premiership match against Canberra from a downstairs bunker in his home on Illawarra’s Coal Coast while recovering from COVID-19.
Yet despite waiting a decade to oversee his own NRL team, Fitzgibbon is willing to leave much of the final preparations with assistant Josh Hannay, who was Cronulla’s caretaker coach for most of last season, and former Dragons mentor Steve Price.
“It’s not the ideal debut but it’s comforting to know that we have got such a strong staff,” Fitzgibbon admitted on Thursday.
In an earlier interview with NRL.com ahead of his first match in charge of the Sharks after 10 seasons on the coaching staff at the Sydney Roosters, Fitzgibbon had spoken about the value of retaining Hannay and Daniel Holdsworth as assistants, while not realising how significant their roles would be.
Fitzgibbon unavailable to attend Round 1 after positive test
“The players are used to their coaching styles so there is quite a bit of continuity and we haven’t had a heap of changes playing wise either,” Fitzgibbon said.
“We have prepared really well and are pretty happy with how things are going but if you went to any NRL club at this stage of the season they would probably all say the same thing. The only curve balls are the odd injury, or maybe a COVID disruption.”
With captain Wade Graham having undergone surgery for an ankle injury sustained in the February 28 trial defeat of Canterbury, Storm recruit Dale Finucane will lead the team against the Raiders at GIO Stadium on Friday night.
Former Storm utility Nicho Hynes, who will play halfback in Canberra, is Fitzgibbon’s other major signing and he rejected claims that players recruited from Melbourne don’t perform as well at other clubs.
“I keep hearing that and I think back and just go, ‘who are they talking about’,” Fitzgibbon said. “Cooper Cronk did alright when he left, Greg Inglis did alright when he left and Israel Folau was going alright until he went to AFL.
“Melbourne are in the top one or two teams nearly every year so unless they go to another top club it is hard to emulate what they have done at Melbourne, because Melbourne are so successful. It gets bought up a bit, but I just can never work out who they are talking about.
“Nicho’s work ethic has been awesome. The thing that has probably caught the staff off guard is that he is relentless. There are no days off, it is just extra kicking or extra passing.
“His skill set is obvious. He has grown up a half and played the last couple of years at fullback, so he knows he has to be on point with all that stuff to be able to steer a team around. He has taken that on, and he accepts that responsibility.
“Players in the spine positions have got to be good decision makers and Nicho is a good decision maker. He has been great.”
Another player Fitzgibbon has been impressed by since taking over the reins of the Sharks is veteran prop Andrew Fifita, who has forced his way onto the interchange bench after overcoming a life-threatening larynx injury that many expected would end his career.
Fifita starred for the Indigenous team in the February 12 All Stars match and also performed strongly in the trial against the Bulldogs to earn a spot in the interchange for the opening round.
“He has been great in the pre-season, he obviously went through an ordeal and it is not to be taken lightly what he has had to overcome,” Fitzgibbon said. “It showed a lot of mental toughness and mental grit to get through the All Stars game the way that he did.
“From a club sense, he cares about the players and the people within the club. He has just got this real nurturing aspect to him, and I think he really enjoys that space. He is a Cronulla legend, he is one of the club’s leaders and he has been a real positive light for us so far.”
Forced to watch the game from his home in Wollongong's northern suburbs, Fitzgibbon said he was yet to decide the best method to communicate with Hannay and Price, who has returned to his 2016 role as an assistant coach with the Sharks after five years in charge of Warrington in the Super League.
“I really trust those guys so I am pretty confident that we are on the same page and I am confident that all the messaging is aligned,” Fitzgibbon said.
“You go through a range of emotions but then you realise pretty quickly that you can’t control the situation and you need to start to plan as best you can from a distance.
“We’ve had couple of months training to prepare to defend a certain way and play a certain way, so it is not like that is going to be forgotten in the space of the three training sessions.
“I will be laying low in the downstairs bunker at home by myself so there will be no distractions, but I will be no less excited to watch the guys play. I am nervous and excited, but I am really looking forward to it.
“I would definitely love to have been there but you figure out pretty quickly in coaching that there are always curve balls coming your way and this is just another one.”