John Morris on coaching, developing young players and his hopes for the Cronulla Sharks in his maiden season as an NRL head coach

Building: New Cronulla head coach John Morris is excited for the year ahead at the Sharks. Picture: Chris Lane
Building: New Cronulla head coach John Morris is excited for the year ahead at the Sharks. Picture: Chris Lane

The season that John Morris made his NRL debut as a 21-year-old with Newcastle, his coach was Michael Hagan.

A 37-year-old returning to coach the club he played for in his first year as a head coach.

The similarities between now 38-year-old Morris and Hagan are striking.

What would be nice for Morris is if his first season ends as well as Hagan's.

"He won a comp in his first year, which would be alright," Morris says with a laugh. 

"Hopefully I can follow the same thing."

Morris doesn't have arguably the greatest player of all time in Andrew Johns in his side for his maiden season as a head coach but he has a squad capable of doing something special, as the Knights of 2001 did.

The Sharks have an impressive list of current or former representative stars - Paul Gallen, Wade Graham, Andrew Fifita, Aaron Woods, Matt Moylan, Josh Dugan, Shaun Johnson - mixed in with a handful of Cronulla's remaining 2016 premiership-winning heroes.

Then, there are the next generation. The home-grown talent that could light up the shire for the next decade, almost rolling off a production line from the club's elite academy. And they are about to break through at Cronulla thanks to Morris.

A product of Scone in the Hunter Valley, Morris returns to Newcastle for Cronulla's season opener on Friday night having endured a pre-season full of off-field distractions.

The NRL's salary cap investigation into the club took it's toll. It sparked a wider probe which saw the Sharks lose premiership-winning coach Shane Flanagan who was deregistered indefinitely after evidence was found he had communicated with the club during his 12-month ban for his role in Cronulla's ASADA scandal in 2014.

The investigation also led to CEO Barry Russell's resignation after he self-reported the initial discrepancy. The club will also be forced to play $350,000 under the salary cap for Morris' first two seasons in charge.

Morris will also take charge of a Cronulla side trying to replace Valentine Holmes, released from the club late last year to chase his NFL dream.

But Morris is not one to panic. He has a calm head on his young shoulders. He is thoughtful, driven, hard working and intelligent - all the things you need to go and earn a Masters of Coaching, which he completed at Sydney University.

Morris has seen plenty in rugby league, as much as any player who played 300 NRL games has - he even played his 300th game with a busted neck, his last game before retirement in 2014.

"I think I was probably moulded from the coaches I had. I started at the Knights under Michael Hagan in 2001 when I debuted as a player and I think he was only 37 at the time," Morris said.

"Not so much in my first year did I want to be a coach but I went on and played under Brian Smith, he was a very innovative coach, very professional, had a really good development mindset. And I learnt so much from my time under him.

"Then I went on to Tim Sheens at the Tigers and I think that block in my career really lit a spark with the science of coaching. I saw what those coaches could do with a footy team and they improved me so much as a player. Without those guys I don't go on and play 300 games.

"I learnt early that if there's a certain way you can apply yourself at training in your preparation, listen to your coach, put into play what they're saying through the week you can be a pretty handy footy player. So I learnt to be a coachable player and then that relationship I had with my coaches kind of just evolved.

"The Sharks were supportive of me with a transition plan post footy. My last game was only in May [that year] and then I went straight into an elite development role at the club so that's where it's all come from."

That elite development role paid almost immediate dividends for the club. They won the SG Ball and Harold Matthews Cup competitions in 2015, before going on to win both the under-16s and under-18s national championships.

Morris enjoyed a successful two-year stint as Cronulla’s under-20s coach, winning the minor premiership in 2017, before graduating to become Flanagan’s NRL assistant coach last season.

Jayden Brailey was the first of his seedlings to bloom, the young hooker making his first grade debut in Cronulla's World Club Challenge clash at the start of 2017. Kyle Flanagan also made his NRL debut in round 24 last season.

I saw what those coaches could do with a footy team and they improved me so much as a player. Without those guys I don't go on and play 300 games.

John Morris

Blayke Brailey and Bronson Xerri are likely to be next. The younger Brailey is in line to feature off the bench against the Knights, while centre Xerri at only 18-years-old looks a special talent.

And assisting the journey from talented teenager to NRL footballer is what gives Morris the most pleasure from his coaching.

"It's amazing. We're having some good success with players that have come through that [elite academy]. And there are 12 of my under-20s guys that I had two years ago that are still in this NRL squad, I think that would be a pretty high conversion rate," Morris said.

"I think it's really important for any coach to go back and start at that elite junior level. That's where you're really forced to coach your socks off because you've got all these kids that are raw and you need to try and get them through and pick the good ones and try and accelerate them to get through the system and hopefully make their NRL debut.

"For me it was all about redefining our elite programs. We had our junior reps system here but we didn't really have an elite program. My first role as elite development coach was to come up with a high-performance junior pathways program and that's when we started doing extra work and putting extra time into our elite kids.

"That year we went through and won the SG Ball and the Harold Matts and had a bit of success there and you could see the systems we had in place were working for us and we were starting to get that transition of good kids coming through."

Morris won't put a number on where his team will finish but is aware they have enough quality to finish in the top four, an almost necessary requirement to win a premiership.

"It's been a really good pre-season actually, aside from the distractions that clearly happened around the change in my role. But the boys have remained focused and done everything I've asked of them," he said.

"I think the mixture is right, to be honest. I think there's 12 guys in the squad who have won a grand final or played for their state or international footy. I would suggest that would probably be up there among the highest representative of the NRL squads.

"So we're very experienced, those boys know what it takes to play and get to big matches but you've also got that next rung down who have played a lot of NRL footy mixed in with some really good young ones coming through.

"I look back on some of the best teams I played in, even at Newcastle when I debuted was a bit like that. You had the senior guys who knew what it took to win games and rep players, then you had that next middle rung and some real good players coming through."

The Sharks have won their last eight matches against the Knights including their last four visits to Newcastle. They also thrashed the Knights less than a fortnight ago in their final pre-season trial.

But Cronulla have gained a reputation as slow starters, having lost their last five season openers, something Morris is keen to fix.

"Every club would be wanting to play finals footy and I think what we've shown over the last four or five years is that this club is capable of doing that," Morris said.

"We were a game off a grand final last year. So I'd like to think the boys are hungry to go one better. But I'm mindful of talking about the back end of the year before we get the front end of the year right. 

"We haven't had the best of starts over the last couple of years. I'm really keen to get off to a good start so we're not chasing our tails like last year when we had to go on a winning run of six or seven games in a row in the middle of the year to get ourselves back into top four contention. Hopefully we can get off to a good start and play consistently well. 

"This playing squad won't accept anything less than playing finals footy and you need to be finishing around that top four if you want to have a good crack at winning it."